By: Fr. James Gross
I want to begin with a special welcome to our guests. As your families rejoice in having you home, we rejoice that you are here with us, and we wish you safe travel when you return to the places from which you came.
Has it ever occurred to you that the proclamation of Christmas is a bold act? Perhaps you haven’t, since so many people mark this holiday, whether they are believers or not. The very idea of what happened on Christmas Day was inconceivable to any number of groups of people around the world, because they couldn’t imagine that what they understood as “the Divine” would humble Himself to associate with us this way.
The literal meaning of the name Emmanuel is “God is with us.” Do we understand how unique and special that is? How can our God, who is transcendent, before all, and above all, be with us physically and tangibly? The only answer is Jesus. He provides the bridge that no other religion can cross. People who form the idea of an exalted, higher power come to discover a huge gap between God’s greatness and our lowliness. Because of this lopsided situation, God becomes the one who is “out there somewhere.” And what results come from this belief? Either God becomes the great clockmaker who build creation, winds it up, and leaves us to fend for ourselves. Or God becomes an over-arching tyrant, an instrument of justice who peers down at us only to mark down our faults and mete out punishment. In either case God becomes distant and is foreign to the concept of a tender relationship. There is a boss firmly in place, in charge, but there’s no sense of communion with His creation.
Looking at it historically, what set the religion of the Jewish people apart? The God of the Israelites desires to bless and redeem humanity: He longs to abide in the hearts of every man and woman. Gods and goddesses of neighboring nations were mastering natural phenomena, like the wind or fire, or wrapped up in silly, dramatic exploits. The God of Israel, the one true God, loves me and shows Himself to me. It’s not that I merited this on my own; He does this so that He may be known and loved in return.
And yet this fellowship was not enough. God outdid even this in sending His only Son, His beloved, to be born of woman. The man Jesus became one with us. The Lord of all things is really here in our midst. Once upon a time in history Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Since that time Christ has been present in his Church whenever 2 or 3 gather in his name, anywhere on earth. The Savior for whom we hoped is born, and our hopes are now so much more within reach.
A few years ago Pope Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical that spoke about the hope we have as Christians, and how this stands apart from merely human enterprises. The Holy Father discussed two examples from modern history: the French Revolution of the late 1700’s and the revolutions stemming from Communism and the political philosophy of Karl Marx. In both cases the protagonists claimed to have hope—that they could solve the problems they faced and improve the world. This so-called hope fueled their evil actions. And in both cases Christians suffered grotesque persecution.
The new regime in France carried out what came to be called the “reign of terror,” slaughtering priests and sisters at the guillotine, confiscating church property for civic use, destroying the Blessed Sacrament, and oppressing the faithful who did not consent to their reforms. As for Communism, what started out as an appeal for economic equality and triumph of the common man quickly became hostile whatever would not promote its goals. Religion, according to Marx, was a drug for the people, an impediment to social progress. Christianity and religious liberty, in pre-World-War-I Russia, for example, were no longer rights but threats. Churches and synagogues could no longer serve as houses of worship, but were confiscated and turned into cattle barns and granaries. Grave markers containing religious symbols were defaced. And that’s to say nothing of my dear German ancestors who did not flee the Volga River valley or Black Sea regions for America or Europe—the untold thousands who were slaughtered, starved to death, or relocated to the frozen remoteness of Siberia.
We must never forget the legacy of appalling destruction that ensues when people hope in themselves and not God. The pursuit of reason and freedom, when detached from God, does not triumph. Rather, it collapses into a blind rage.
Here Pope Benedict concludes that neither science, politics, or any humanist philosophy can redeem humanity; only love can. A hope based in God, one that does not use human skills as an end in themselves, will improve civilization rather than to destroy it. The following quote serves as the Holy Father’s summary: “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive. His Kingdom is present wherever He is loved and wherever His love reaches us.”
With a lively faith and hope the Church rejoices that Christ has indeed come. We pause to marvel at the tiny Infant born in Bethlehem, knowing that now that he is with us, we can fully hope in God’s greatest gifts, and the unending joy of heaven. Will we have greater trust in this Holy Child who grew up and offered his very self as our saving sacrifice? O come, let us adore him. Alleluia!