Friday, December 24, 2010

The Nativity of Our Lord (Mass at Midnight)

Titus 2:11-15 / Luke 2:1-14

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

It is the cry of lamentation of one Charlie Brown into the hostile, unruly auditorium filled with his peers, gathered under the pretext of celebrating Christmas but, for all of the trappings, leaving Charlie no closer to an answer. He has certainly seen his fair share of the happy promises of the season — of skating on a frozen lake, catching snowflakes on one's tongue (even, pace Lucy van Pelt, before January), and searching out the perfect tree to decorate, one that just needs a little love. He has also seen the shadow side — the cynicism of those who would gladly send cheers with Christmas cards yet just as easily sneer at those who were not on their mailing list; the commercialism so pervasive as to have gripped the heart of his little sister, and even his own dog; the superficiality that would prefer a pink tree made of soulless aluminum over a living, breathing tree, or the tinny sound of a childish rendition of Jingle Bells over the richness of the same melody played on a piano or organ; and even the cruelty of those who imagine that the honest desire to celebrate the holiday well is ruinous of the enjoyment of everyone else. There is, in short, no wonder that Charlie Brown needs guidance about the meaning of Christmas.

We know the reply Charlie Brown receives, from one Linus van Pelt. Stepping out onto a darkened stage, himself illumined, he recites in the august cadences of the Authorized Version: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Strange as it seems, this recitation, which should be a clear enough answer for any to hear and understand, has become, of late, far from convincing. There are those, even Christians, for whom the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord has become a thing of sentiment and nostalgia, an occasion for spending time with children, family, and friends. There is much good in such a celebration, but what do we make of recent studies which show that, even among believers, more energy is spent telling children of Santa Claus than the story of the Lord's birth? What do we make of the practice of so many of our Protestant brethren to anticipate the celebration of Christmas on the Sunday preceding, allowing Christmas to be spent at home with the family? Indeed, what do we make of a world in which, not so long ago, pastors of some American megachurches cancelled Sunday services because they coincided with Christmas, and they desired to be "lifestyle-friendly for people who are just very, very busy"? Apparently, for many of the faithful, the glad tidings made to the shepherds is, if not absent, far from central to the keeping of this holy day.

At the same time, more and more unbelievers insist that Linus had it wrong, and that the Gospel we preach this day is altogether separable from the rest of the celebration. They assert, sometimes caustically, but sometimes kindly, that much that we want to celebrate — light, the turning of seasons, cheer and goodwill, kindness to neighbor and especially the least fortunate, the exchange of gifts, music and cheer and good food and company — could be done just as well and just as easily without any direct reference to the birth of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh and Savior of men. After all, we speak happily of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday without honoring Tiw, Woden, Thunor, or Frige. Why, they ask, can we not keep the trappings of, even the name of Christmas, without needing thereby to honor Christ?

In short, does the proclamation of the birth of the Savior make any difference?

Given the news we proclaim, one might wonder how anyone would think it would not make a difference! If a man, far from home, received news that his beloved has agreed to marry him upon his return, if a patient should hear that what was feared to be malignant cancer is benign and operable, if refugees in a foreign place should be told that it is safe to return to their homeland, does the news make any difference? The sweetheart's agreement is no less real before her beloved receives the letter, the cancer is no more lethal absent the doctor's visit, and the homeland no less welcome apart from the report over the radio. Even so, can we say that hearing the good and great tidings is of no importance? Rather, ought we not to say that, in light of the good news, everything changes? Indeed, should we not, in the face of those who have been so distracted by the general celebration as to forget what we were celebrating in the first place, should we not strive all the more to live soberly and justly and godly in this world that they, along with us, might look for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ?

God has done unimaginably great things for us in sending his Son into the world. In him we are bought out from under the tyrannical slavery of sin and so healed from within that the good we long to be able to do, the love we so deeply hope we can express, are now really possible for us, and in ways far beyond our wildest hopes. We have, in the babe of Bethlehem announced by the angels, hope not only to do what is good, right, and just in this world, but a sure hope of joy unconquerable in the next, and in that hope more than enough reason to pause even now and anticipate as best we can with tinsel and tree, with candle and bonfire, with trumpet and organ and carol, with egg nog and puddings, with presents and good cheer.

What is Chrismas all about, Charlie Brown? It is the confidence that God, who has made this holy night shine forth with the splendor of the true Light, will grant that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may enjoy also his happiness in heaven.

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!

No comments: