In 1941 W. H. Auden wrote “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” The poem is a series of dramatic monologues spoken by characters in the biblical Christmas story along with choruses and a narrator. The characters all speak in modern diction, and the events of the story are portrayed as if they occurred in the contemporary world. Simeon’s meditation in the poem in part goes as follows: “And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking; our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.”
There really is no such thing as “as if” when it comes to what we are celebrating on this night. Emmanuel, God with us, is really and truly with us tonight, today in our lives. Christian reflection through the centuries always comes to Simeon’s conclusion- the birth of Christ, “His visitation,” changes the entire human agenda, changes it from pursuing a missing, an absent God to surrendering to an “always and everywhere present God.”
The Incarnation, God becoming human, is really a landmark, cosmic, ontological shift which changes everything. When God was missing (or presumed missing) we could always ask questions like, “Where is God in all this anyway?” with its presumed answer of “nowhere.” Or we could scream out, often hysterically, “How long, O Lord, how long?” to some distant, remote deity. After all one can always deny or scream at or blame a distant, missing god (who may or may not really be there anyway). But if God is “always and everywhere present,” what then?
Brothers and sisters, this is what we’re all about tonight- learning to continue to surrender to our “always and everywhere present God.” And this year that always and everywhere includes Friday, Decmber 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. That was the day that I began to reflect and put together my thoughts for this homily. I was doing just that when I received the news of that tragic event. To be honest, I couldn’t continue. Whatever I was thinking and trying to say, seemed so meaningless at that moment. So, I went for walk. The following day when I returned to my reflections on today’s Feast, it was still a struggle for me. I found myself wanting to avoid this horrendous tragedy; to put it out of my mind and get on with my Christmas homily. But would it really be a Christmas homily if I bracketed all the very real human tragedies in our world today?
We who worship Jesus on this holy night, we who listen again to the song which the angels sang, we who begin to glimpse the reality that in Jesus heaven and earth really do come together, we now have the responsibility to sing this song for ourselves, and so to discover what it might look like in practice for Jesus really to be the Savior, the King, the Lord in this so sad, and often tragic world of ours. The Christmas message is about the reality of God becoming flesh- part and parcel of our reality, with all the suffering and puzzlement that goes with it.
I just mentioned that on first hearing of the tragedy in Newtown I tried to avoid it, so I could get on with my Christmas homily. What I came to realize was that it was right there in the midst of all that pain and heartache that God was being born. And I pray to God that in saying this I am not putting some "theological veneer" over the whole painful, tragic mess. A Jewish rabbi ,who was present in the fire house where family members were gathering in the midst of the chaos of that day, was interviewed by a reporter. He said the following: “There’s no theological answer to this. What you have to do is be with them, hug them and cry with them.” Isn’t that why God became human, so that He could be with us, embrace us and cry with us? The images that I saw in newspapers or on the internet of so many people doing just that, embracing and crying with each other, became for me a sort of living icon of God’s Incarnation. And I am more convinced now than I was before December 14, that because of God’s Incarnation God’s embrace is wider, broader, deeper than any evil. And God’s tears can quench the flames of any hell.
And so brothers and sisters, let us praise this Jesus tonight from a full heart, full with all that we carry within it, and from a glad heart. And let us celebrate His birth with everything we’ve got. And then in our own unique ways, big and small, let’s go and bring God’s glory in heaven to his people on earth. The angels sang their song. And they did a pretty good job of it. Maybe it’s time we learned to sing it back to them.
Excerpts from Abbot Damian's Homily for this year's Christmas Mid-night Mass. Photograph of a detail of the Abbey Creche taken by Brother Jonah.