Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord

A justice and peace meditation on the Four Masses of Christmas

December 24 - 25, 1999, commencing the Jubilee Holy Year 2000.

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THE VIGIL OF CHRISTMAS

Today you will know that the Lord is coming to save us, and in the morning you will see his glory. (Entrance Antiphon)

Isaiah 62, 1-5 + Psalm 89 + Acts 13, 16-17, 22-25 + Matthew 1, 1-25

Using the most intimate of metaphors, Isaiah sings a song of a bridegroom who rejoices in his bride, a hymn of reconciliation, the jubilation of those who although once rejected, forsaken, and desolate, have become the delight of the Lord. Who can be silent in the face of such news? When has this ever happened before?

In response to this word, the assembly sings "Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord," and we hear the words of an ancient hymn of praise. . . "At your name they rejoice all the day, and through your justice they are exalted." There's that word -- justice, and it's not just anybody's justice, it is the Justice of the LORD. We will hear more about this as these liturgical celebrations progress.

Paul, preaching in Pisidian Antioch, connects the Incarnation with the saving acts of God in the history of his own people, citing their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, their rescue from a mad king, and the establishment of the Davidic dynasty of kings, within whose house was to come the Messiah, the Savior.

Matthew, in the tradition of his people, gives the genealogy of Jesus, generation to generation from Abraham to Joseph, within whose family Jesus was born, and the One who would come to save people from their sins.

The masses of the preceding week have focused on Mary and John the Baptist, today's gospel is centered on Joseph. What a man he must have been! His fiancé turns up pregnant, says God is the kid's father and an angel explained all this to her. Joseph, being a "meridian of time" devout Jew in an impoverished rural village, mindful of the traditions of his people yet merciful in his application, is thinking, "Well, a quiet divorce and this will be over." Then he has a dream, an angel speaks to him, and "When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the LORD had commanded him. . . " This is a clue.

The family has always been at the center of human society, it is the structure where human beings, children of God, come into this world and grow, learn, and develop. God could come into humanity in any way He chose; the One who creates the world is hardly bound by human customs and biological necessities. Yet, he does not appear at this time in history in glorious triumphant radiance. Rather, he comes into this world -- emptying his being into flesh, sharing our mortality -- in the midst of a loving human family. His country is not the ruling empire, but a conquered province. His status is not that of the priestly or the civil authorities, nor does he belong to the economic elite. As they would say in these parts, Jesus was born poor, raised poor, lived poor, and died poor.

This is not saying that those who are not poor are rejected by God. The ministry of Christ was supported by people who had resources, as was the growth of the Church. It is to remind us that the poor are blessed by God, the One who could come to any human family chose humility and that justice is the response God calls from us. It is a sign of contradiction to our human cultural tendency to reject the poor, to exploit them, to manipulate them, to create and maintain structures of sin that keep poor people poor, and to foolishly and unjustly arrange for the inequitable distribution of the gifts of Creation. It is a teaching moment illuminating the truth that clothes do not actually make the man or the woman, we are not the sum of our possessions, the purpose of life is not accumulating consumer goods.

This is a clue.



THE MASS IN THE NIGHT OF CHRISTMAS

The LORD said to me: You are my Son; this day have I begotten you. (Entrance antiphon)

Isaiah 9, 1-6 + Psalm 96 + Titus 2, 11-14 + Luke 2, 1-14

Again we hear a song from Isaiah, rejoicing and jubilation in response to the liberating and saving power of God. Yokes of slavery and whips of punishment are destroyed. . . "Every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames."

The United States has 12 aircraft carriers. Each one has 4.5 acres of surface area, carries more than 100 aircraft, plus missiles, guns, 3,000 or so sailors, and sails with a flotilla of destroyers, missile launchers, cruisers, submarines and etc., projecting United States Power to the four corners of the earth. . . Every boot that tramped in battle. . .

Thousands of nuclear bombs in the United States, Russia, China, France, England, Israel, India, Pakistan. . . Every cloak rolled in blood. . .

It takes your breath away to contemplate it.

How does all this come to be? This must be the work of a mighty conqueror -- but no, it's not a high falutin' emperor, just a little baby, a child. Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero. The nature of His reign is justice and peace.

Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord, we sing in response to these mighty words of power and liberation. Sing to the LORD a new song, all you lands, bless his name. Let the heavens be glad, let the trees in the forest rejoice. Why? Because the LORD comes to rule the earth -- with justice and with faithfulness.

Now we know for sure the United States government is not the Reign of God. There is precious little justice or faithfulness in the here and now. The reality of this world's rulers is cruelty and hate, oppression and exploitation, violence and terror. Even as these words are written, Russian federal armies are destroying the city of Grozny. Did all the civilians get out? Nobody seems quite able to say, there is some concern that a lot of the people left in the town were too old, feeble, and/or ill to walk their way to safety. As President Clinton would say, they are collateral damage, expendables, they have no one to speak for them, they have no atomic bombs of their own. Not that we Americans have much moral room anymore to be lecturing the Russians. "Without justice, the state is merely organized crime." Confucius said that. He was talking about ancient China, but it still rings true today, especially here and now at the beginning of this Jubilee Holy Year 2000.

Titus, in the second reading for the Midnight Mass of Christmas, sheds some light on why this is relevant. He reminds us that the essence of Christmas -- the Incarnation -- was grace, which is the free and unmerited gift of God to us. How do we respond to this? Titus says that it calls us to change our behavior, to reject the godless ways and worldly desires, to live temperately, JUSTLY, and devoutly. He reminds us that Jesus gave himself freely to deliver us -- to liberate us -- to save us -- from lawlessness, so that we will be a people "eager to do what is good."

Somehow, I think we've missed that part of the Christmas message.

Talk about living temperately, justly, and devoutly during the Christmas season? Shut your mouth, fool, the gross domestic product is at stake! Forget temperance, justness, and piety -- spend! consume! gratify all appetites! cost is no object!

It wasn't so different back then.

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. This was the first census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be counted, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child."

"While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."

What does it take to get a man to put his young wife on a donkey, late in her pregnancy, and walk yourselves all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey of many miles? The authority of an oppressive government, taught to a conquered people by miles of people crucified by the roadside, villages and cities burned, children slaughtered. When the Romans said jump, you generally asked "how high?" on your way up, and you didn't come back down until they said it was OK. They were not a nice peaceful people, they were ruthless warriors and pitiless administrators who saw empire as a way to enrich themselves. Their economy was based on the enslavement and exploitation of human beings, the aristocracy lived in comfort and ease on the backs of masses of people held in subjugation by abject terror and military violence. Their economic and political arrangements were such that the production of the many was centralized under the control of the few.

Like I said, it wasn't so different back then than it is now.

Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because they had no choice but to obey the Roman emperor or suffer the consequences. When they arrived, there was no room at the inn, so they made a place in a stable, mostly likely actually a cave, there were probably goats, cattle, and chickens. Not exactly the birthing suite at Mercy Hospital. And so it came to pass that this woman Mary, chosen by God, gave birth to a child, a human child, a God child, Incarnation -- "O what a wondrous Child", part of a living, breathing, and loving human family.

"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. The angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'"

Did the angel run fast and quick to the Roman authorities and say, "Hey guys, come and see, there's a baby who's gonna be a king and he's gonna give you Romans a real run for your money?"

Did the angel hop quick fast into the Temple in Jerusalem, blow his trumpet and say, "the Messiah is come! Hasten quickly to worship him!"

No, the angel went to the Shepherds, keeping watch at night in the fields with their flocks. Shepherds, it says. The social status of shepherds in those days was not especially high, especially among the Gentile readers of Luke's Gospel. Shepherds? Did it actually say shepherds? Why shepherds? Why not Roman aristocrats?

It's another one of those clues.

God did send a message to the rich, this isn't a story chasing anybody away who comes in humility to kneel before the Manger -- He them sent a star, a heavenly phenomenon of some sort, seen by the Magi of the East, wise men who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were not poor. Tonight however we are being reminded that the poor are part of the Story too, and this is important news, because generally, then as now, the poor are not considered to be part of our Story. They are somebody else, they are "Other", "Not Us", and we certainly don't want them in our backyards or our neighborhoods. We wouldn't send any angels to invite them over for a visit, instead, we would cut their welfare checks and food stamp allotments in an attempt to make life as miserable as possible for them so that hopefully they will leave this state and go be somebody else's problem.

This is another clue, and illuminates one of the reasons why we so desperately need Christmas.

The Three Blessings of Christmas at Midnight:

When he came to us as man, the Son of God scattered the darkness of this world, and filled this holy night with his glory. May the God of infinite goodness scatter the darkness of sin and brighten your hearts with holiness!

God sent his angels to shepherds to herald the great joy of our Savior's birth. May he fill you with joy and make you heralds of his gospel!

When the Word became man, earth was joined to heaven. May he give you his peace and good will and fellowship with all the heavenly host!

THE MASS AT THE DAWN OF CHRISTMAS

A light will shine on us this day, the LORD is born for us: he shall be called Wonderful God, Prince of Peace, Father of the world to come, and his kingship will never end. (Entrance antiphon)

Isaiah 62, 11-12 + Psalm 97 + Titus 3, 4-7 + Luke 2, 15-20

Isaiah's song continues in this third mass of the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. Again he rejoices in the welcome given to those who were rejected and marginalized. A savior has come! We do not have to live in the Egypt of Oppression, there is One who is come to us who will lead us into freedom.

"A light will shine on us this day: the LORD is born for us!" we sing in response. There is a new king on the block -- and look, the heavens themselves proclaim his JUSTICE! All people can see his GLORY. A light will shine on us this day, the LORD is born for us! Light has dawned for the JUST. Which is perhaps to say, within the Light of Christ, we can see who is the just and who is the unjust. And wouldn't you know it? Seems to me like while we were stumbling around in the darkness, we got it wrong again. There are many among us today who posture as the just, but who in fact are the unjust. They take advantage of the darkness to hide their true natures. After all, they are beautiful, powerful, all people say nice things about them -- see how people wait upon them and beg their favor! Yet, when the light of Christ shines upon them, somehow their beauty is not so clear. And over there, in the corner, are those that we thought we ugly, yet in the light of Christ, they shine with radiant glory.

It's always darkest just before the dawn, whenever and wherever that Dawn may be..

Titus comes to us again at this mass, speaking of kindness and generous love, reminding us that our Savior appeared not because of any great things we had done, but rather by mercy, rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, the richly-poured-out-upon-us savior, Jesus Christ, through whom we are heirs of eternal life. When it's over -- it's not over, it's just beginning. How hard it is for us to learn that lesson and really believe that it is true! Included in the message of Christmas is the knowledge that the supernatural reality is as "real" as the natural world we experience every moment of every day with our physical senses. We are not alone! God is poured out upon us!

"When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the LORD has made known to us.' So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds."

The shepherds may have been poor, but they weren't fools. They heard the menage of the angels -- and then they themselves responded. They went in search of the baby Jesus. As they discovered that they had not had a collective hallucination, they turned around and went out into the village and the fields and told everybody they met about the wondrous news.

People were amazed by this, perplexed. "Angels," you say, "Messiah? Anointed One? A baby in a manger with the cattle and the goats?"

"And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them"

Once again, Mary shows us how to respond to God's saving activity in our lives. Keep these things in our hearts -- and reflect on them, which is to say, meditation and contemplation, these are not disciplines that fit well into our busy lifestyles, but oh how important they are to understand these great mysteries and how we should fittingly respond to this wondrous gift.

THE MASS DURING THE DAY OF CHRISTMAS

A child is born for us, a son is given to us, dominion is laid on his shoulder, and he shall be called Wonderful-Counselor. (Entrance Antiphon)

Isaiah 52, 7-10 + Psalm 98 + Hebrews 1, 1-6 + John 1, 1-18

A fourth time Isaiah comes to his in poetry and song, rejoicing in the good news, announcing salvation, glad tidings, restoration, comfort, redemption. All the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God who is King over all the earth, whose reign is Just.

Our fourth response to the Word of this festival is, "All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God. And again, a fourth time, we sing of justice, kindness, faithfulness. . . "in the sight of the nations he has revealed his JUSTICE." Are you counting these clues? Justice is important to God. It is intimately bound up with the Incarnation. We are called right now to live in justice, temperance, faithfulness, love, and piety.

As we have journeyed through these four masses, we have been in caves and mangers, and walked with shepherds and the poor. Now in Hebrews, we find a reminder of who it is that is coming to us this day: Jesus, the "refulgence of God's glory," the "very imprint of his being," the one who "sustains all things by his mighty word."

This is that baby? Over there in the manger? Beside that goat? "You are my son, this day I have begotten you!"

"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 came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . .

That's the Baby in the Manger.

"He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him."

That's that homeless guy over there. And look, there's a crack addicted prostitute with AIDS.

"But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God.

See that young kid, he's 9 years old, works 13 hours a day, six days a week, making Disney merchandise, he earns 13 cents an hour.

"And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.

Ah yes, a mother on welfare with six kids.

"No one has ever seen God, the only Son, God, who is at the Father's side, has revealed him."

There goes another one! Let's burn him at the stake! And a woman with child, bruised and battered. Illegal aliens! Foreigners! Strangers!

Distressing disguises, that Baby has. But His life is a revelation of God to those of us who have never seen God. He went about doing good, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming those who were rejected, reconciling enemies. He went to the diseased lepers and to the comfortable rich. He comforted the afflicted and he afflicted the comfortable -- and he continues to do this today. He is a king in disguise, whose kingdom is real but not recognized, his Reign is characterized by justice and peace.

What a wondrous and beautiful time of the year, even in the midst of the tumultuous events of this season. As we go about preparing to celebrate the Nativity, reality intrudes itself upon us. We find women with babies living in empty lots in tents, another family abandoned and without support, elderly people without natural gas or running water, kids who are hungry, men who are lost in drug addiction and alcoholism, drowning the pain and emptiness of their lives with counterfeits. In the newspapers we read of wars and massacres and great natural calamities, perhaps as many as 50,000 people dead in Venezuela. Our government issues warnings against terrorism, people are caught smuggling bomb parts, others are arrested for plotting acts of mass terrorism. Throughout the world, a great mobilization is beginning that focuses on the night of December 31, 1999/January 1, 2000, due to concerns about the safety and stability of the basic infrastructure that sustains our ways and manners of living.

We've already noted that it is darkest just before the Dawn, and surely, the labor pains attendant with birth are excruciating (so much so they can hardly be understood by those of us who have not experienced them). Comes now the Roman pontiff, he who was born Karol Wojtyla, who now reigns as His Holiness Pope John Paul II, and he proclaims this year as the Jubilee Holy Year 2000, consecrating this period of time to justice, charity, renewal, reconciliation and redemption. In the name of this Baby who sleeps quietly in a humble stable, we are called to live in the Reign of Christ, to respect life, to cease from our oppressions and exploitations, to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit those who are sick and imprisoned. Peace and goodwill is proclaimed to all.

And we are also to ask -- why are these people poor? Why are these people rejected? Why are they hungry? As we reflect on these things, we have been reminded in each of these holy celebrations of Christmas that we are to respond to God's gift of grace by concrete actions of love, peace, beauty, wisdom, mercy and justice. It's not enough to piously sigh as we look at the beauty of a nicely decorated church filled with glorious music. That's not why Jesus came into the world.

This is a time that is pregnant with possibility and wonder. Maybe this year we will figure things out a bit, come to an understanding of some of these clues God is sending our way. We don't have to get up on December 26, 1999 and go out and instantly become Mother Theresa. We start small or we don't start at all. Each act of goodness, beauty, mercy, justice, and peace is a step in the right direction, whether they be randomly scattered or intentionally focused. Sure, the evil that is in this world is strong, powerful, and riotous -- but it is not stronger than the Baby Jesus who sleeps so quietly and peacefully in the stable.

Our love response to God -- and to each other, and especially to the Jesus who comes among us in distressing disguises -- is the ultimate Christmas gift, better than anything that we could buy at a store.

The angel said: "I proclaim to you good news of great joy, today a Savior is born for us, Christ the Lord."

What a wondrous story this is! In the midst of what Christmas has become for and to us, we must authentically remember that all these things did not happen so that a rich and arrogant people inhabiting the northern half of the western hemisphere of planet Earth could spend and consume themselves into oblivion, rooting their prosperity in the ruthless gratification and exploitation of the seven deadly sins of pride, lust, avarice, envy, spiritual laziness, gluttony, and wrath.. Rather, it was and is a free gift of grace offered to us to save us from our sins so that a people "eager to do what is good" could grow into community together -- a process of "en-family-ment" with all that idea implies in terms of love, solidarity, and faithfulness.

May the power of this holy Night bring peace to all the nations! May the dawn of this Christmas morning bring justice to the poor! May the example of our Lord, poured out as a Baby in a stable, be for us a sign of humility and contradiction to the arrogance and materialism of our cultures and communities! During this Jubilee Holy Year 2000, may the doors of every heart and every home be open to the wonder of Christ!

HAVE A MERRY AND HOLY CHRISTMAS

From the Archbishop Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City

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