Merry Christmas! – it’s amazing the joy that simply saying those two words can bring. But what does that one word, Joy, really mean? For most of us, our Christmas memories, experiences, or expectations are measured on scales of happiness where we imagine Joy as the highest level you can achieve. While it’s not uncommon to hear a lot of criticism about the preparations and trappings surrounding our Christmas celebration, it is understandable that, as human beings, we are driven to such extremes trying to hit the maximum on those scales. We hear stories and might have memories of celebrations that seem idyllic. As December 25th rolls around each year, we feel this pressure that makes us want the decorations to be perfect, the food and drink to be abundant, the cards to be on time, and the gifts to surprise and delight.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the SOLEMNITY OF THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD (CHRISTMAS DAY)- December 25, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
A year and a day ago – Christmas Eve 2022- my brother Craig obliterated the bar for Christmas gifts in the Chern family. All of us adults, myself, my Mom, my other brother Chris, and sister-in-law Mairead, knew what was coming for my three nieces. Craig had kindly provided some bogus story to my nieces about how he foolishly had left his home, forgetting their gifts behind, and would make sure they got them in a few days – just so the rest of us could exchange our gifts, knowing that he was going to bring a tsunami of reactions -which was pretty much spot on. When he revealed that, after hours of walking around all day with his laptop in hand, he had actually gotten them 6 tickets to see Taylor Swift, that most definitely blew their minds. In the chaos of screams, texting the news, and immediate discussions about whom each of them would bring with them to see this concert, it overshadowed any and every other gift that was given to my nieces that night. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what I got for them last Christmas. Part of the excitement for them was the thrill of knowing they were going but then having to wait another five months till the actual concert. It was beautiful to see how excited they were and equally touching when they insisted they wanted their Uncle Craig and their parents to come with them. Side note: when Uncle Craig called Uncle Jim to apologize to me for being left out and how terrible he felt that it was never his intention and that maybe he could find a single ticket so I could join them, I assured him that my not having a ticket was gift enough. It was gift enough to see them all deliriously happy and excited, and no offense to Swifties, I was okay with not going myself.
Just a few weeks ago, when we were all last together for Thanksgiving, someone said, “It’s going to be hard to top last Christmas,” referring to this gift. Which, on a certain level, is understandable. For three teenage girls, after all the hype and attention, to be able to go to “the event” of the year was an incredible high. It was really special to see how happy my brother was revealing the gift, knowing how appreciated it was and he was, that they insisted he come with them. But all of that is now something in the past, a memory. A happy moment in time. Something that, fairly or not, Christmases and Christmas gifts to come will be compared to.
It happens to many of us – non-Taylor Swift fans as well. We can quickly associate that high, that type of euphoria, that type of excitement with Christmas. Which is why I think so many work so hard to always try to top or at least somehow meet these expectations that we put on ourselves each year. There’s been such a melding of things that bring us moments of happiness, an abundance of them, desire for them and to share them that we might not even realize how distracted we’ve become to missing the real meaning of Christmas: The gift that God offers to each and every human heart -every one of us who were thought of in His mind, whom He carefully and intentionally brought into being at this precise time and space that we find ourselves in, and who He lovingly has a plan in mind for our good, our flourishing, our fulfillment. The gift that God offers at Christmas is true and lasting Joy.
Praise God you’re here for Christmas Mass – whether you’re here every Sunday, which is so good to see so many familiar faces – or this is your first time here – praise God you’re here. We’re so blessed and happy for you to be here with us at this Mass. Whatever brought us here today though, God will never be outdone in generosity. As we just heard God’s revelation of His gift to humanity of true and lasting Joy in these scriptures.
We started with two passages from our elder brothers and sisters of the covenant, God’s chosen people, the Jews. From the Hebrew Scriptures, we heard the prophet Isaiah beautifully announcing good news – boldly announcing what we echoed in today’s psalm: “All the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God.” Isaiah first made this proclamation when things were far from settled, and far from perfect for the people. They had been exiled, they were able to return to Jerusalem, they had started to rebuild – but it wasn’t the same as it had been. They had some of the trappings, some of the earthly things they had before, all the things they had gloried in as God’s people before were there. They couldn’t put their finger on it and probably didn’t want to sound ungrateful, but they knew something was missing. And they were right. This is why Isaiah comes to them and tells them everything is changing… God would remain faithful to His promises but in a new way. In a way, they could not even imagine. The chosen people were still His, but now they would be the means for the rest of the world to become “chosen” too. God had ended Israel’s exile. Now, the rest of the world’s exile was going to be ended by the God of Israel – All the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God!
Which brought us to this Gospel, this prologue of the Gospel of John. When you first hear it, it might seem so “un-Christmasy.” Where is Joseph and Mary and the Inn Keeper? Where are the angels and the shepherds and the nativity? Those other Christmas narratives from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are shared at the other Masses of Christmas (sorry)… or if you watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (which I highly recommend). There’s something extraordinary in the different way the Christmas story is told by St John.
I didn’t always feel that way. I used to say St. John was like the Dr Seuss of all the Gospel writers: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God” – can almost be sing-songy like the author of The Cat in the Hat would write. But over the years, I’ve grown to love St. John for the unique vantage point that he provides. Those more familiar aspects of the Nativity of Jesus from St Matthew and St Luke are told from very human viewpoints. It tells us about Christmas from the eyewitnesses of those who first experienced and witnessed it. St. John, the only apostle not martyred, who lived the longest, who was entrusted with care of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the cross by Jesus, and was possibly the closest of friends on a human level to Jesus (John refers to himself as “the beloved disciple” so at least in John’s mind and heart he was Jesus’ best friend) the Holy Spirit inspires John with offering us the Christmas story from God the Father’s perspective where he echoes the very opening words of Creation from Genesis “In the Beginning.”
We’re brought back to the origins of everything – that astonishing moment between nothingness and creation. After centuries where humanity seemed to miss the central meaning of the creation story, where God had shown up and shown out in miraculous ways that confounded the enemies of God’s chosen people but even seemed sometimes seemed lost on those Chosen People themselves – the freedom from slavery in Egypt, the parting of the red sea, when the manna – the heavenly bread – literally rained down on them in the wilderness, all of them only seemed to give them moments of happiness. That lasting joy was elusive to them.
In the word becoming flesh, in the birth of Jesus, God perfects it that humanity now could touch and receive Him and not be overpowered or overwhelmed.
Light – true light came into the world. A light invisible to the eyes but not the heart. A light that penetrates the darkness that still permeates our world with war and terrorism and violence; the darkness that weighs down our nation with injustices and seemingly growing significant division experienced between neighbors; the darkness that weighs heavily on so many of our families and homes when sickness and disease have destabilized us; where we grieve the death of loved ones; personal failures and setbacks that undermine any confidence or belief in anything other than happiness being fleeting.
The light of Christmas first breaking into creation as it’s being made new first dawned in a manger in Bethlehem. But it has not been extinguished because it can never be. Jesus Christ’s radiance still shines here and now in West Orange, New Jersey, in 2023. God does not remain distant out in the universe. He is here. He knows you and me. We are not some miserable creatures on a tiny planet of no interest to Him. The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us… God has stepped into History. He stepped into our messes, our brokenness, our fears, and our anxieties. Not to commiserate or simply numb the pains and sufferings which only provides respites, brief relief, happy moments. Jesus comes to save you and me.
When we receive Him – receive Him in this, His word; receive Him in His Body and Blood in the Eucharistic Host which is placed into our hands and received into our bodies and souls; when we receive Him in the forgiveness of sins, He offers in confession when we hear we are absolved of our sins, that our guilt, our mistakes, our shame has been taken away – it is then we truly encounter the love of God who is absolutely kind and powerful.
We can deal with the darkness of the world and darkness that sometimes casts shadows into our lives because in receiving Jesus, we know we are loved by one whose light and strength is stronger than even death itself. It is then that we know, with certainty, the gift of God given that first December 25th in the birth of Jesus Christ who brings Joy, who is Joy every day and is what makes this and every year a Merry Christmas.
Thanks to everyone who contributed on #GivingTuesday and kicked off our Newman Catholic Center at Montclair State University (aka Red Hawk Catholic) Annual Christmas Appeal. To our goal of $35,000, we’ve just topped $12,000. We appreciate your considering to support us and our mission of bringing Christ’s light and life to the faculty, staff, administration and especially the students of MSU! To donate online, please click our PayPal Link here . (If for some reason the link doesn’t work, you can get to the Donate link on REDHAWKCATHOLIC.COM the link is on the top to the right. Checks can be made out and mailed to Newman Catholic; 894 Valley Road, Montclair, NJ 07043. Thanks so much for your generosity and support! Father Jim