( Homily on Christmas Day, 2013)
My first pilgrimage to the Holy Land was in October 1996. One of the highlights of our pilgrimage was going to Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth. It was particularly memorable for me because we went there on my birthday and I was able to celebrate the Eucharist. There are two churches there. There is the Catholic one where I celebrated the mass and the Orthodox Church which is the most visited because that’s the spot where it is believed that Jesus was born. In the basement of the church there is a grotto where tradition says that the manger was located. In that grotto there is this marker in the shape of a star that indicates where the crib was. Pilgrims would take turn in touching the star. While waiting for my turn I saw two young ladies in a corner sobbing quietly. I knew they were not trying to get attention but I noticed them. And I said to myself, “Why are they crying?” Then it dawned on me that in this place God has visited his people. I was struck with awe and wonder at the thought that God, the Creator of the universe, came to dwell with us in the person of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. I was asking myself, “Who am I or who are we, to receive the honor of being visited by God?” With that realization I could not help but shed some tears too. I understood why those two young ladies were crying.
When the president of the United States of America comes to the Bay Area, some people are willing to pay thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars just to see him. Certainly they would brag about their meeting with the president afterwards. On this Christmas Day, how do we feel when we are reminded that the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace has come to visit us? How much are we willing to pay? The good news about Christmas is that God’s visit is gratuitous. It is free. And so the birth of our savior should evoke in us that sense of joy and excitement that the bride and the groom feel when they prepare for their wedding. The first reading for the Christmas Vigil mass taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah has this to say about the coming of the Lord: For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you. Christmas is not just about God’s visit to us. It is about God making his people his bride. How awesome is that?
Those who have been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem know that in order to get inside the church you have to bend down or bow, because the entrance door is narrow and low. Bowing or bending down is a gesture that signifies humility. The entrance to that church is kept like that intentionally to remind those who would enter that they must humble themselves to visit the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. But the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, the God-who-is-with-us, has set the example first. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes: Though he was in the form of God, he did not seek equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. This is what Christmas is all about. Jesus was born in a manger. The Son of God was wrapped in swaddling clothes. His first visitors were not the VIP’s but the lowly shepherds. Jesus, our Lord, embraced humanity in order to show us the way to the Father.
In his Christmas message, Cardinal Tagle of Manila wrote that people are wondering, “How would Christmas be like for the survivors of the Zamboanga crisis, the earthquake in Bohol and the super typhoon Haiyan in the Visayas?” He said that a lady in Palo, Leyte, gave him the answer to the question. That survivor said, “With the ruins around us, this would probably be the first time I would celebrate and understand the true meaning of Christmas.” Cardinal Tagle said that her answer brings us back to the central sign of Christmas: the humble baby in the manger who is truly the Son of God. All other other signs of Christmas: lights, food, revelry, costumes and gifts, must be rooted in and draw their meaning from the core sign: the humble person of the Son of God who emptied himself to become one of us.
Even though the first Christmas took place without fanfare, we rejoice and we cannot help but celebrate it with all the bright and colorful trimmings that are now associated with Christmas. We rejoice because we have seen the light of the world in Jesus, the word of God made flesh. The prophet Isaiah writes: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. The Christmas lights remind us that we are no longer in the dark. Christmas should not be a once a year event so that we remain mindful of how it is to walk in the light. Walking in the light means being humble as Jesus is humble, loving as Jesus loves unconditionally, forgiving as Jesus forgives without limit, making Jesus number one in our life. The good news that we hear on Christmas is that we are not alone as we walk in the light, because Jesus, who is called Emmanuel, is with us. Keeping that in mind we now understand why everyday is Christmas because the truth is: Christmas is in our hearts. And for as long as we live our light shines in our daily living of the mystery of Christmas. After the liturgical season of Christmas, we put away all the Christmas lights. But we are not packed away. The gift of light is not just given for a season but for all eternity. Christmas is forever.
Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad! Maligayang Pasko!