Words on the Word
Christmas Midnight Mass
Isaiah 9:1-7: The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.
Titus 2:11-14: A people that would have no other ambition except to do good.
Lk 2:1-14: And the glory of the Lord shone.
On Monday evening, a lorry drove into a crowd festively gathered for a Christmas market in Berlin. Twelve people were killed, more than fifty severely wounded. We still do not know who committed the atrocity, or why; but all assume it ties in somehow with other acts of terror that have struck Europe this past year, in Brussels, Munich, St-Étienne-du-Rouvray, and elsewhere. There is a ferment of violence abroad in our world. It erupts in unexpected places, at unexpected times. We are increasingly aware of being caught up in a global dynamic of conflict that is not in anyone’s control. It is terribly unsettling. The world is being reshaped. Values are overturned. Institutions collapse. We recognise ourselves in Isaiah’s images: the land of shadow, the people walking in darkness, the garments rolled in blood. We’ve long acknowledged the darkness at a distance. Now it draws closer to home. Frightened, we feel small. Is there anything we can do? Would anything we did do make a difference?
What sense does it makes to celebrate Christmas in the midst of such anguished uncertainty? We may feel like Blanche de La Force, the heroine of a play by the Catholic novelist and playwright Georges Bernanos. His Dialogues des Carmélites is based on facts, set in revolutionary France. A community of Carmelites responds to the pressures of the anti-Christian regime. The nuns know they may have to pay with their lives to be true to their faith, their profession. They are conscious of their frailty. Their drama is condensed in the figure of Blanche, a woman tortured by deep-seated anguish and dread. At Christmas in 1790, when the terror is rising to a pitch, an old nun tries to comfort Blanche by showing her the Christ-Child from the crib. He is robed like a Little King of glory. ‘I hope he will bring you courage’, says the kind sister. ‘Oh! How small he is, how weak!’, replies Blanche. Just as the Little King is given her to hold, a shout from the mob beyond the convent walls startles her. She trembles, then inadvertently drops the Little King, whose head is smashed on the stone floor. ‘Oh!’, she cries, ‘the Little King is dead!’
Brothers and sisters, if our image of the Infant Christ resembles that Little King, a porcelain figurine prone to break if subject to too sudden movement, let us look again at the Christmas Gospel. The world into which Christ was born was, like ours, a world of violence and change. It marched under Caesar Augustus’s banner. Augustus is renowned as the man who brought peace to the Roman empire. Yet what sort of peace? Roman dominion was imposed on nations who, like Israel, affirmed their right to sovereignty. The nationalist cause forms a backdrop to the Gospel narrative. The census referred to in our infancy Gospel is no benign headcount to ensure social benefit. It is a despot’s taking stock of human chattel. Within three-quarters of a century Israel would be destroyed by the officialdom that counted it the night Jesus was born. Christmas is not a fairytale of picture-book prettiness. The world in which God became man is the same world of alarm that we recognise as ours. It is to this world that angels proclaim, ‘Peace! Be not afraid!’
In the Creed we will recite in a moment we profess God as ‘all-powerful’. It is infinitely fascinating, and perplexing, that this omnipotent God should consistently choose ways of intervening in our world that appear to us poor and weak. Yet such has been his choice since the beginning. God does not work by imposing grand designs. He works by infiltration. He calls individuals, trains them, and make them his ambassadors. ‘When Abraham was but one’, we read the other day, in Isaiah, ‘I called him, I blessed him, and made him many.’ God’s plan was for his blessing to reach ‘to the ends of the earth’. Yet to bring this about he chose one man, waiting for the seed of grace thus sown to be fruitful.
What Abraham prefigured is brought to fulfilment in Christ. In him, ‘the grace of God has appeared to us for the salvation of all mankind’. That is how God, in his Wisdom, wishes to act. He does not confront might with might. He transforms situations of iniquity and pain from within, causing peace to bud gently like a flower, destined one day to blossom forth in joy. Blanche makes this experience as Bernanos’s play develops. She sees that Christ does not swoop down from on high to snatch anguish away, but that, instead, he takes our anguish upon himself. Thus he raises us up, imperceptibly, from our bed of dust, imbuing us with deep, mysterious freedom. Blanche, once chronically anxious, ends up giving her life with serenity and fearlessness. She sings as she faces execution! We are gathered this night to recall that God would likewise transform our fears into confidence, praise, and generosity.
Christ was not born as a doll to be handled with silk gloves. He was born as a leaven to be kneaded into the life of humankind, that the dough might rise to be bread fit to nourish. That leaven has lost none of its force. The question is: will we, you and I, let it work in us? Christmas is for all of us a call, an invitation. Meister Eckhart once wrote: ‘What good is it to me if Christ is born in Bethlehem but is not born in me? What use is it to me to call Mary full of grace, if I am not full of grace also?’ May the mystery of Christmas, brothers and sisters, be accomplished in each one of us. Amen.