The Church’s Gospel proclamation from the Gospel of John for the Mass of Christmas Day comes as a surprise to many.
There is, in this Gospel, no reference to the Holy Child laid in a manger or to the Virgin Mother or to Joseph her husband. There is no mention of a crowded inn or angels or shepherds or a star. Instead, we hear a poem or what sounds like the text to a hymn that speaks of Christ as the Word and that this Word became flesh and as such was his glory as God revealed- in the flesh.
Those seemingly cryptic references to Christ, far less accessible to us than the story of the Holy Child laid in a manger, lulled to sleep by the angels, worshipped by shepherds and kings, and bathed in the radiant light of a star, but they tell us the same truth, refer to the same revelation.
This truth, this revelation, is that the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God, and it is this truth, this revelation, that discloses the great mystery of Christmas: that in Jesus Christ, the eternal God has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real human life.
How this is possible remains utterly inexplicable. Why this has happened is easier to understand, even if it remains hard for us to fully accept.
God did this, he allowed himself to live in this world as a man, being born first as a baby, is because the one, true God is a personal God, meaning that he is a not just an idea in our minds or a feeling in our hearts, or some kind of cosmic force. Instead God is a living, divine person, who created us for communion, that is, friendship with himself. And to make this communion, this friendship possible he does not just send us an invitation at a distance, but in Jesus Christ he meets us, quite literally, face to face.
The communion or friendship that the one, true God seeks with us is such that God accepts from us a human nature and in doing so offers us a share in his divine nature- opening for us possibilities that are way beyond what our humanity alone can accomplish or achieve.
The ancient sages of the Church called God’s gesture, his willingness to be born into this world and live and die as a man, a marvelous exchange. This means that God accepts a human life for himself so that we can receive from him a divine life. This the heart of the Gospel and its revelation is the deep mysticism of the Christ’s revelation- he accepts a human life so that we can have a divine life and by this divine life is meant that we can share communion or friendship with God.
How this happens for us is as strange and wonderful as God being born into this world, and living, like us, a real, human life. Looking at that Holy Child in a manger, few would have understood that the Child gazing back at them was the eternal God made flesh, and yet there God was, in the flesh, sharing communion with us and offering us a reason to become his friends.
The same strange experience happens in our reception of the Sacraments of the Church. For the Sacraments of the Church are not merely expressions of culture or a means through which we give religious significance to important events in our lives. The Sacraments of the Church are encounters with the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself- they are the privileged means, in this world, in the here and now, that God makes communion or friendship with him possible. The Sacraments serve the same purpose as the human nature of the Lord Jesus- they are his privileged means through which he makes himself known to us.
At the beginning of the Advent season I spoke from this pulpit about the coming of Christ in the world- that God in Christ comes to us in history, in mystery and consummation of all things that we refer to as the end of the world.
The first and the last, history and the end of the world, receive the most attention from us. History offers us the story of the Holy Child in the manger, a story that we love to hear over and over again. The end of the world captures our attention because it is something that we all fear. However, in our preoccupation with these two, we can lose sight that Christ comes to us now- in mystery, which means in his Sacraments, particularly in the Blessed Sacrament that we call the Eucharist.
The Eucharist delivers to us the true and living presence of the Lord Jesus himself. The same divine presence that rested in a manger becomes for us a source of divine life and nourishment. In fact, the revelation of the Holy Child resting in a manger, a feeding container for animals is a foreshadowing of how God in Christ will feed us with his divine life in the Blessed Sacrament.
Thus, on the very day the Church commemorates the birth of God in Christ in the world, the faithful are called to, not a play or performance or a pageant, but to a Mass- the Christ Mass, an event the culture has come to call Christmas, but what the faithful know as the Mass.
The Mass, this Mass and every Mass, is the occasion where God does for us now what he did in Bethlehem centuries ago- he shares communion with us and invites us to be his friends.
It is here that we can be the recipients of the “marvelous exchange” where God in Christ gives us a share in his divine life while asking us to give him a share in our own lives.
Giving Christ a share in our lives is what he asks of us, and in exchange he gives to us, through the Blessed Sacrament, a share in his life. This is what holy communion is. This is how friendship with God in Christ happens.
Christ who came to us in History and will come again into this world at the end of time offers himself to us right now in this Mass- the Christ Mass.
In this mystery of the Blessed Sacrament we see and can receive the very same divine life and presence that revealed himself to the world centuries ago as the Holy Child of Bethlehem.
For his Word is even now made flesh and blood, and makes his dwelling place among us and we can see his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth…
Here today for us in mystery…