The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)||December 25, 2005|
I presume that all of us are aware of the controversy that has taken place over the last few years about de-Christianizing Christmas. People are very upset because some people say we shouldn't be saying "Merry Christmas." We should be more sensitive to those who don't know Jesus, don't believe in Jesus. Some people want us not to have public displays of Nativity scenes and so on. There's been a lot of arguing about this back and forth. No real resolution has come of it yet, but when I hear about this and become aware of it, I ask myself, and invite you to ask yourselves, "How do you suppose the first Christian community would have reacted to this kind of a controversy?" They would not even been able to think of such a thing, because the first Christian community didn't celebrate Christmas. That may seem very strange to us, because in some ways we've made it the most important Christian feast of the year, but it wasn't even a feast in the church until generations later.
Look at the scriptures, the New Testament, to see how they treat the story about the birth of Jesus. Mark's Gospel has nothing about it whatsoever, and John's Gospel, as we heard today, speaks about it in a very theological way, not in a historical way. The first Christians didn't make anything real out of Christmas. Do you know why? This is really important -- because they heard the word of God in their lives. They heard what we heard proclaimed today, how God had spoken down through the ages, through the prophets and in various ways. Then finally God spoke through God's word who, as John identifies him in the gospel, existed before anything, who was with God, who was God, from whom all of creation came. And this word came into our world. Jesus is the physical word of God and Jesus teaches a message.
That's what the first Christians heard -- the message of Jesus. And it had nothing really, at least not very much, to do with how he was born, where he was born, who was there and so on. No, the message was so much more important than that. The message was proclaimed for those first Christians and this became their Gospel. The first Christians were very aware of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That was the news, the Good News that changes everything, shows us a whole new way to live, a whole new way to enter into relationship with God. For the first Christians, the message of Jesus was the message of the cross and of his being raised from the dead.
In writing to the church at Philippi, St. Paul puts it so beautifully: "Jesus, who though he was God, did not think his divinity something to be clung to but emptied himself." Jesus let go, in a sense, of his Godness in order to enter into human history, to become one with us, fully human. Even to the point of giving himself over to death and the ignominious death of the cross. And it was therefore that God exalted him, raised him up. See, that's the message. That's the word that is proclaimed in Jesus. It's the word that says, "God loves us without limits." It's the word that says, "If you're going to follow God's ways you must begin to love without limits." It's a word that shows us that we must be willing to lay down our very lives out of love for one another. That's the message. That's the word. That's what we need to be celebrating even at Christmas.
If you look into the world in which we live, it becomes very clear -- as John says in the gospel lesson, "He came to his own and his own received him not" -- that people don't want to hear that word. Or don't want to accept that word. It's too demanding to give your very self for others. This past week, I think, we had an extraordinary example of how in our nation -- in our supposedly majority Christian country -- the kind of love Jesus preached by his very being among us is rejected. Look what happened in our Congress this week. If we don't see Jesus reaching out to the poor and caring for them, we'd have to say we don't know anything about Jesus. It is so clear in the gospels. He was always reaching out, always looking for those who needed help. What does our Congress do? They pass a budget where they eliminate money to pay heating costs for the poor. They eliminate health care money for the poor. They eliminate education assistance for the poor. They pass a budget that is a disgrace! If you try to follow the way of Jesus it's a complete contradiction.
I was thinking, too, of the immigration bill that was passed. If Jesus wanted to enter our country he couldn't do it as an immigrant or refugee, because we want to build a wall to keep people out even though we're a nation of immigrants. Now we have an immigration law that makes it almost impossible for people to enter our country. Jesus, who had to flee his native land and go into exile, would be rejected at our border! Isn't that amazing? Yet we argue about whether we should say, "Merry Christmas" or not. It's so absurd. We're not listening to the word that Jesus proclaimed. He spent his whole life, even to the point of being put to death, for others, and we are turning away from others.
Jesus was always inclusive, but in our church we exclude. We don't want gay men to be priests. How evil is that? We don't welcome gay and lesbian people into our community and allow them to be fully active members. We in our church don't give full possibilities to women to serve in every way within our church. We're acting against the word that Jesus proclaimed by his very coming into our midst. So in our nation and in our church we are being like those who John says where his own and they "received him not."
It's important for us to celebrate Christmas, of course, to remember the moment when Jesus was born. But if we don't celebrate it in a way where we really recognize that Jesus is the word of God come into our world to speak a message, if we don't recognize that and listen to the message and try to live it then there's no point in all the celebrations that we put forth around Christmas. We're rejecting the very message that Jesus came to proclaim.
Yes, I invite all of us to celebrate Christmas with a lot of excitement, and a lot of joy. Try to imitate Jesus in giving to one another gifts, but it must go far beyond that. We must be ready to even lay down our lives for others. If we really follow Jesus, we must be ready to lay down our lives for others, and we cannot do that while we're holding a gun in our hands. We can't follow Jesus and carry a gun ready to kill someone. Jesus gave his life rather than take any life. Listen to the word that God proclaims in our midst -- the word is Jesus, who was with God and who is God and who shows us how God is for us -- God is love, God loves us without limits. God gives Jesus to us fully so that we can enter into that very life of God and live it now the way Jesus did.
That's how to celebrate Christmas and I hope that all of us will do whatever we can to change the direction of our country, change the direction of our church and live different lives ourselves reaching out to one another, welcoming, loving one another, making our parish family and our human family places where love is present. That is the way to celebrate Christmas. So with those thoughts I extend to everybody a prayer that we may truly understand what Christmas is about and live it, not just this year but for the rest of our lives.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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