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Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Beloved: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us
to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly,
and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance
of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself
for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a
people as his own, eager to do what is good.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole
world should be enrolled.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and
keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared
to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck
with great fear.
* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.
has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published
numerous articles and reports.
* Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.
For your convenience, the
Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the
Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright ©
1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.,
may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic
** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.
of the mix-ups here and there (Christmas Pageant at Saint Leo's Church),
I think we all heard the message and realized that the children were proclaiming
for us that Jesus, the son of God, is born into our midst and this is what
we celebrate tonight.
It’s very important for us to take a few moments to reflect as deeply as we can on this mystery of the birth of God into our midst.
I’m sure we’re all very much aware of how easy it is to lose sight of the real importance of Christmas. We are almost overwhelmed, in the days before Christmas, by the way that this religious feast is commercialized. It becomes a feast of consumption, really.
And we have to be very careful to not let that distract us from what the feast is really about. (Or we can let it become just something sentimental.) We gather together and most of us have very good memories of our childhood and how important Christmas was back then. And even having the story portrayed by these youngsters tonight, it can become just something that we sentimentalize.
But if we let it become just a commercial event or something sentimental, we fail to grasp what this feast is. And, of course, what we are celebrating tonight, we know from our faith, is the most momentous moment in all of human history. It’s almost impossible to discover the words that will enable us to plum the depth of the mystery. God, the omnipotent, eternal, ever living God, becomes one of us.
If we turn to the gospel of John, we get a different sense of Christmas than we do when we hear the story as told as it was tonight from the gospel of St. Luke. John reminds us that, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing came to be. Whatever has come to be, found life in him; life, which for humans, was also light, light that shines in the dark, light that the darkness could not overcome.” And then further, John says, “And this word of God, responsible for all of creation, was made flesh. He had his tent pitched among us and we have seen his glory; the glory of the only son coming from God, fullness of truth and loving kindness.”
St. Paul, in one of his letters, tries to give us a sense of what the birth of Jesus means.
When he was writing to the church at Philippi, an early group of Christians, he told them, pleaded with them, “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, who though he was God did not think his divinity something to be clung to but emptied himself. God letting go in a sense somehow of his Godness, emptied himself in order to enter into human history, to become one of us, fully human, even giving himself over into death. And, even more, the ignominious death of the cross.”
God coming into our world and letting go of his God-ness and becoming one of us.
In our first lesson tonight, Isaiah, speaking about a human king, but in words that we easily think of when we think of God being born into our world, “The people who walk in darkness have a seen a great light. A light has dawned on those who live in the land of the shadow of death.” And Isaiah proclaims what happens when this light comes into our midst, “The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressors, you have broken it.” And then peace can happen. “Every warrior’s boot that has tramped in war, every cloak rolled in blood will be thrown out for burning and will serve as fuel for the fire.” Why? “For a child is born to us. A son is given us and his name is proclaimed wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace.”
All of this speaks about Jesus born into our midst, the son of God, and becomes one of us. Human history takes a completely different turn because of Jesus. He shows us a whole new way. And it’s very important, as we try to make sure that we don’t sentimentalize this birth of Jesus, that we recognize that he came into this real world in which we live in order to show us how to live God-like. In order to show how God-ness can break forth within each one of us, within every person in the world.
Jesus came into the real world. It was a world where there was violence. The land where he was born, the country in which he became part of was occupied by the Roman army. And the people lived under a cruel occupation. But Jesus showed us a way of responding to that violence, to that injustice, and to that oppression, through love, through God-ness, because Jesus is God who is love. His whole life was an attempt to reveal the God-ness to us and to enable us, who are human, to share in his God-ness. Just as he shares in our humanness, we are invited to share in his divinity or in his God-ness in that unlimited love, which is God.
And this, of course, is very important for us as we celebrate this feast of Christmas in a world that still resembles very much the world of Jesus, a world where there is violence and oppression and injustice. In fact, in the very Holy Land, where Jesus was born, at this very moment in the city of Bethlehem there are no lights burning. It’s not a time of joy there. The church is empty, the Church of the Nativity, people are not coming because it’s occupied by an army. Tanks are in the streets of Bethlehem, not people coming to remember the birth of Jesus.
And the violence is not only there in Bethlehem and in the Holy Land, but in many parts of our world. But perhaps it’s most significant if we think about the injustice and violence that happens there.
Just this week, I received a notice about what’s called the Patriarcate, which is the diocese of Jerusalem where the Christian church is. And that diocese, according to this release from the archbishop there, recently witnessed different measures taken by the Israeli government with regard to its Arab clergy and its Jordanian seminarians, because Jordan is part of this archdiocese. This has also been the case with regard to certain religious congregations present in the Holy Land.
Here’s what they have done. Entry visas into the country have been refused. So the seminarians from Jordan cannot come to go to school. The renewal of residency permits for some has been put off indefinitely. These actions hinder the pastoral activity of the church because they make travel within the diocese almost impossible for priests and religious and ministers. These actions threaten the very existence of the seminary. Two-thirds of the seminarians come from Jordan. Numerous procedures have been undertaken over the past months by the seminary itself, the official organ of the archdiocese and by the apostolic delegation of Jerusalem, the representative of the Holy Father. But until this time no satisfactory response has been given. These measures are unjustifiable and unacceptable on the part of a government that seeks to respect religious freedom for all in the Holy Land.
And so the people there live with this oppression, with this injustice, with this violence.
And yet we cannot expect that they would respond with violence, with hatred. If there’s ever going to be peace there, or anywhere in the world, it has to be because the people there or the people anywhere respond with the God-ness that is in them, because Jesus has been born into our midst.
And I can tell you of two examples that are happening right there in the Holy Land that show that Israeli people and Palestian people both have recognized their God-ness and are trying to bring about peace through the way that God has revealed this to us in Jesus.
One is a village. It’s about half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Hebrew, the village calls itself Neve Shalom. In Arabic, it calls itself Wahat al-Salam. Those words mean “Oasis of Peace.” And this is an extraordinary village because half of the families are Israelis and half of the families are Palestinians. But they elect a common council to oversee the guidance of the village from both groups. And they struggle to live in peace and love with one another, to show a model of how everything could be changed in the Holy Land. The oppression, the violence, the killing could end if all the people there, Israeli and Palestinian, would recognize the God-ness that’s in them and live according to that way of God, which is the way of love.
This one example could be multiplied over and over again if only all would recognize that God has come into our world to show us a new way and all of us can participate in this goodness of God, in the life of God, and change our world.
The other example, which is truly extraordinary and a very powerful example, is of an Israeli woman. She’s a young woman of about 28 or 29 years old, whose name is Neta Golan. She lives near a village of Palestinians. But there is an Israeli settlement very near by and the people from the settlement prevent the Palestinians from crossing the territory beyond their homes and into their orchards where they harvest their olives. And many times the Palestinians are shot at. And so, what does this young woman do? She comes and she places herself between the Palestinians and the settlers. In a sense, she is saying, “If you are going to shoot them, you will have to shoot me also.” And sometimes they do shoot close to her feet and so on to try to frighten her and drive her away. But she won’t go. She says, “No, there has to be non-violent act of love.” And she even brought a whole group of Israelis to go with the Palestinians when it was harvest time to harvest their olives. They did this risking their lives, showing that love for one another can breakdown the barriers of hostility and hate.
Those are two examples of what could happen in our world if all of us would open ourselves to the God-ness that comes into our midst in Jesus. God revealed to us in Jesus Christ; the God of goodness and unlimited love. All of us have to try to bring that spirit into our lives.
We don’t celebrate Christmas just to remember this event and just to be mystified in a sense by the extraordinary idea that God could become one of us. We celebrate this feast of Christmas to remind ourselves that God came into our world to show us a new way, the way of God, the way of goodness, and the way of love -- a new way to breakdown any barrier that has been built up between individuals or groups or nations. And so each of us, as we celebrate this feast tonight, I hope will remind ourselves of the profound truth, Jesus, who though he was God, did not think his divinity something to be clung to, but emptied himself, let go of his God-ness and become one of us.
Reflect on that, but also we must remind ourselves that Jesus did this in order to change us and allow us to act differently according to his way. That means that in our interactions with one another, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our communities and in our world, each of us must try to take on the spirit of God-ness and live it. We remind ourselves that our God is love. And so each of us has to reach out in love to one another; the love of generosity, where we share what we have, or that special kind of love we call forgiveness, where we reach out in reconciliation to one another, or that extraordinary, almost extreme kind of love, where we are willing to place our lives on the line in order to breakdown hatred through nonviolence.
As we celebrate this feast tonight, we rejoice that God has come into our midst. We pray that we will ponder deeply the meaning of this and pray even more that we will be able to act according to the God-ness that each of us shares because Jesus is born to us.
In the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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