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December 25, 2011
Most Rev. James D. Conley, S.T.L., Auxiliary Bishop of Denver, delivered the following homily for Christmas both at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception's Midnight Mass, and at Mother of God Catholic Church in Denver, Colorado, later on Christmas morning.
For the angel said to them: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.”
These words of the angel, spoken to the poor shepherds who were tending their flocks that night outside of Bethlehem, capture for us the true essence of what we celebrate tonight (today). “A Savior has been born for us, who is Christ the Lord.”
At a place and in time, God definitively entered into the world and forever changed the course of human history. This is what we celebrate tonight (today).
And the historical dimension of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus is extremely important. For our faith is not a philosophy or simply a theory. Our faith is rooted in historical events that, yes, took place a long time ago, but are still remembered and celebrated each year with great love and joy.
We heard at the beginning, the Solemn Proclamation of the Nativity of the Lord that was taken from the ancient Roman Martyrology and drawn from Sacred Scripture. This proclamation situates for us, if you will, the birth of Jesus in the context of salvation history.
And then we heard the gospel tonight, taken from Saint Luke, which began with the decree from Caesar Augustus announcing a census, calling everyone in realm to return to their own home towns to be enrolled. This census, it is interesting to note, is attested to by the Jewish historian, Josephus, in his first century historical classic: Antiquities of the Jews.
And so Joseph and Mary leave their home in Nazareth in Galilee and travel down to Judea, to the city of David, to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, just a few miles south of Jerusalem.
These are all real places and real towns – and this is the historical context in which God chose to enter the world definitively.
And the greatest mystery of all, the most wondrous truth of the entire story of the Incarnation of God into human history, is that he chose to come to us as a newborn child in his mother’s arms. This is the wonder of Christmas. This is the joy of this night. And this is the mystery of God’s infinite love for us.
Many writers over the years have pondered the paradox of this mystery, the irony and contrast of this marvelous fact of our faith, the child who is our God.
The King of the universe was born into poverty; God was made flesh in a poor, humble stable made for animals. The Light of the World came in utter darkness; the Light of the nations, with no place to lay his head. The Son of God, the Lord of Lords, a tiny, vulnerable infant; the long awaited Messiah requiring feeding, comfort, warmth and care. The second Person of the Blessed Trinity, born amidst the hay in a stable with an ox and a donkey; a God with a human face! The Bread of Life, whom we will consume in a few moments, was laid in a place where animals consume grain!
The ironies abound. The paradoxical wonder of the Incarnation boggles the mind. And all of this points to what it means to be both fully human and fully divine; and to enter into human history, time and space, when and where, and in the condition that he did.
No other religion in the history of the world makes this claim regarding its founder. It’s no wonder that the Incarnation is met with such skepticism and scandal.
And our only proper response; the only true way to truly respond to this great gift from God, is joy. And true joy always begets gratitude; the two are inseparable.
And if we think about it, joy, generosity and gratitude are really the unique sentiments of Christmas; the irrepressible joy of Christmas – that God would deign to come down from heaven and become one of us.
In the words of Saint Leo the Great in a homily he preached on Christmas nearly 1500 years ago in the 5th century, on the profound “joy” of Christmas, he said this:
“Let us be glad in the Lord, dearly beloved, and rejoice with purest joy that there has dawned for us the day of ever-new redemption, of ancient preparation, of eternal bliss. For as the year rolls round, there recurs for us the commemoration of our salvation, which promised from the beginning and accomplished in the fullness of time, will endure for ever.”
Or, in another Christmas sermon of this great saint and pope, Leo writes this:
“Today the Maker of the world was born of the Virgin’s womb, and He, who made all natures became the Son of her, whom He created! Today the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and That which had never been visible to human eyes began to be tangible to our hands as well. Today the shepherds learned from angels’ voices that the Savior was born in the substance of our flesh and soul.”
“I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
And notice that the word at Christmas time is always joy and not happiness. All the great hymns and anthems of Christmas speak of joy and not happiness. Why is that?
Joy and happiness are not synonymous – they are not the same thing. As one author put it recently, “[happiness] can burn with a low flame and can provide comfortable background for our lives. But joy burns with a bright flame. It is piercing, rhapsodic, momentous and in the forefront of our consciousness” (Donald deMarco, National Catholic Register 12/12/11).
It’s really true when you stop to think about it. The two words, joy and happiness are not the same. Joy has a supernatural quality about it. You don’t “win” joy like you might “win” happiness. Joy comes from God. We can’t earn joy or “achieve” joy by our own efforts, it is a gift from above.
For example, we pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary and not the “Happy Mysteries.” McDonalds sells “Happy Meals” and not “Joyful Meals.” A person may be “happy-go-lucky,” but no one is “joyful-go-lucky!” After work there are “happy hours,” but not “joyful hours.”
It is true, the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that a virtuous life can bring us happiness, but only Christmas can bring us joy!
I heard on National Public Radio the other day that studies have shown that “shopping” can actually relieve someone temporarily from the pains of depression, but it cannot bring true joy.
I think we can become reasonably happy through our own achievement, but joy is a gift from God. Christmas brings joy to our hearts, even to people who are already reasonably happy.
And Christmas always brings out the very best in humanity. Why is this? In the words of the great English convert to the Catholic faith of the last century, GK Chesterton: “because Christmas is that mysterious revelation that brought joy upon earth.”
This is why, I think, we immediately sense gratitude whenever we feel joy. We know that joy is a gift we do not deserve and we cannot earn.
And so we sing: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Or “Joyful, joyful we adore thee.” Or “Jesu, the joy of man’s desiring.”
The French don’t even say Merry Christmas but rather “Joyeux Noel.”
So the joy of Christmas is essentially a spiritual thing. It is about man being reunited to God through an unbelievably generous act of God giving his only begotten Son to us as a our Savior. And this fact alone should inspire gratitude and joy in our hearts.
Once again, GK Chesterton, for whom Christmas was a an endless source of joy and creativity in his writing, as it was for Charles Dickens, once quipped: “if my children wake up on Christmas morning and have someone to thank for putting candy in their stockings, have I no one to thank for putting two feet in mine?”
Generosity, joy and gratitude are all of a kind and they are the stuff of Christmas. I recently came across a clever acronym for JOY, J-O-Y: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third – JOY.
And so, we rejoice with the poor shepherds tonight (today) for unto us a Savior is born – indeed good news of great joy.
Jesus must be at the center of our lives this day and every day. Our individual egos cannot and must not be the source of our joy. It just won’t work.
In a few moments we will all genuflect on our knee as we proclaim these words in the Creed (new words!): “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Let’s accompany this simple and humble bodily gesture with deep joy in our hearts and think of those famous words of Saint Paul: “for every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
For today the whole universe pays him homage, He who is the very center of reality.
Again, as GK Chesterton put it in a simple child’s verse, for we all know Christmas is all about children:
The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.
The Christ-child comes to us at Christmas to fill our gloomy world with radiant joy.
My brothers and sisters, let us make the best of it this Christmas, and allow His joy to flame brightly in our hearts.
A joyful Christmas to you, one and all!