Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Nativity of our Lord (Mass at Midnight)

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

Near the beginning of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the miserly, cold-hearted, and damnable if not yet lost Ebenezer Scrooge is surpised, unpleasantly for him, by a visit from his nephew, Fred. While Scrooge provides his litany of complaint against the holiday, Fred persists in unassailable joy and goodwill. Finding himself confronted by Scrooge’s claim that Christmas has never done him, or any other man, any real good, Fred presents the following retort: 
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round  — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to is can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
In his own way, Fred seems to have taken to heart in this defense of keeping Christmas something of the wisdom imparted by Paul to Titus. The appearance of the grace of God our Savior among men, which is to say, the appearance among men of God himself as man, Paul tells Titus, was precisely to teach us to reject impiety and worldly desires, and to live soberly, justly, and piously in this world, this time, this age.

It is here, though, that the Christmas message today seems to stumble. Good-intentioned men and women who reject the Gospel have come to insist that the heart of Christmas are precisely those things which Fred insists can be valued “apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin,” namely the kindness, forgivness, charity, and pleasantness, the solidarity with one’s fellow man, and especially with those in need. To these who live in unbelief, rejecting impiety and worldly desires, living soberly, justly, and piously can be held as having value even without being taught by the coming of the Savior. If they are correct, if we can keep what is best about Christmas without the Word made Flesh, then do we, the faithful, not confuse matters by insisting, again and again, that Jesus Christ not be neglected in this holy feast? Do we not insert a principle of division and discord precisely in proclaiming not merely peace on earth and good will toward men, but glory to God in the highest as well?

St Paul, in his letter to Titus, does not, however, merely give some laudable moral advice. He notes that the appearance of the grace of the Savior which teaches us how to live also directs our attention to the blessed hope, the coming of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Even as Fred opines that abstracting the good cheer of Christmas might be a mental exercise only — “if anything can be apart from that” — Paul directs Titus from moralizing and ethics, however important they be, to the real hope and joy of Christmas. That is, Paul wants Titus, and wants us, to see that how we relate to our fellow men here and now, how we abound here and now with kindness, justice, and solidarity, especially for those most crushed by the hardships inflicted upon them by our own unchecked worldly desires, is precisely what will make us receive with boundless and unconquerable delight or with inconsolable and unremitting despair, the final culmination of all that is. Said differently, while there can be no final joy for any who remain unmoved by the plight of the poor in their midst, who prefer their own comfort in warm beds to the warmth of human kindness towards those least plausible to receive our love, neither can there be lasting happiness for those whose love extends only as far as the grave, which considers earthly loss final, and so accepts a limit to charity. It is the hope of unbounded and inexhaustible festival, evident already in the choirs of angels attending the birth of the Lord in a place fit for beasts and not men, that transforms our earthly kindness and solidarity into what it was meant to be in the first place.

This is why, without the Cross of Christ, and with that Cross the final and glorious coming of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Christmas will seduce us again into impiety and worldly desires, either mere sentiment or cold moralizing. Faced by the seemingly insurmountable longings of the world, the only true and hopeful answer is to raise up, along with the tinsel, the holly, and the cheerful songs, the broken body of the Savior. This was the wisdom of Tiny Tim, who even in his broken body, or perhaps precisely because of it, saw that Christ alone can make good the promises and hopes we exchange so freely on this day. Tim hoped, his father relates, that “the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

So, without any desire to take away in the least the true and laudable good that our brothers and sisters outside the faith have done and will do on this holy day, we insist like Fred to return every year and proclaim not merely good cheer and human solidarity, but the true Light that made bright that most holy night in Bethlehem. We do so that we, with them, might know better on earth the mysteries of that Light here on earth, in the hope that we, with them, might together take part in the joys that last forever.

God bless us every one!

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