Christianity lives within the wonder first sketched out by the prophet Isaiah and heard in the liturgy throughout these past weeks of Advent. Lots of Isaiah! Today, as we zoom in on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, we celebrate both the coming of Isaiah’s exalted Lord of Lords who became a servant, and the birth of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who became Lord through his whole life of faithful love of God and neighbor, “even unto death, death on a cross.”
Although historically birth comes before death, the early Christians celebrated the death of the Lord long before they came to ponder his nativity. His Passion and Death are always in the background of the Infancy Narratives, which were composed last. Looking back from the vantage point of Golgotha, Matthew and Luke recognized that, from the very first, this child is born to deal with evil and sin and love gone wrong. Humanly speaking, he will fail and be buried under the weight of it. Another victim in the bloodthirsty history of humanity, which continues in our own day.
But the Good News and reason for celebrating Jesus’ birth is that the whole life ahead of this child will be one of re-creating our humanity from within our own history. In the stories that will be told about him, we shall find him restoring and healing, guiding and welcoming, forgiving and recreating the lives of the ordinary people whom he meets. So much so, that they will share in his Holy Spirit and become his co-workers in his mission.
“Re-creating our humanity from within our own history”— a few days ago I saw an article in the newspaper which struck me as a powerful example of this, taking place in a “Bethlehem” of our own time, where there is literally “no room in the inn,” a teeming tent-city in Mexico where more than 2,500 migrants seeking asylum have squatted while their cases wind their way through immigration court in Brownsville, Texas. Exposure to the elements, overcrowding and lack of sanitation have created conditions for illness to spread in the sprawling camp. The picture that caught my eye, and my heart, was that of a 28-year-old Cuban critical care physician, the sole doctor in this tent city and himself also awaiting asylum, treating very sick children as a peer completely sharing their situation. Under a canopy on the edge of this squalid encampment he gets right down to their level and all day every day gives everything of the little he has to treat, stabilize and encourage. A picture shows him in T-shirt and jeans making a spacer for an inhaler out of a paper cup to make sure a 4-year-old girl from Honduras who has asthma receives the appropriate dosage of medication, her eyes looking right into his, and his into hers as he sprays. He is Christ; she is Christ. Salvation within a shared history.
At Christmas we ponder, “How did all this begin?” and “Who is it that is with us still, Emmanuel, even until the end of time?” In the Gospel, St. John proclaims, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” To say that this Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” is to say that God has translated his own character into a language accessible to us – a lived human life – that of Jesus of Nazareth. Here the Eternal Mystery of God is showing itself at its most characteristic, though in a human form. The night before he died, Jesus tells his disciples in the upper room: “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” Jesus is the human face of God. And today’s Gospel concludes with this tremendous claim: “We have seen his glory: the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love.”
Jesus shows us God’s way of being human and invites us, from his Bethlehem poverty, to follow in his life, to likewise be “filled with enduring love” (as is that young Cuban doctor on the Mexican border). Jesus’ truth and faithful love embrace the joy and hope, the grief and anguish, of the men, women and children of our own time, and as his disciples, we are to become with him the “in-breaking” of the Reign of God, “the Light that shines on in darkness.”
That picture in Monday’s paper was, for me, no less than an icon of “the Light that shines on in darkness,” the Word saving us within our own context. He does not come to us as some alien from another world, or even as Isaiah’s “Lord of Lords and King of kings” intervening from without, but as flesh of our flesh, making his dwelling among us as one of us – fully human, just as he is fully divine.
Today, each of us will approach the crèche and look into the manger. Let us recognize this tiny baby as the Light that comes in the midst of darkness, our darkness, and believe that this little child is truly “God-with-us.” Let us honor this tiny Bethlehem that restores Paradise to us.
Christmas homily by Father Dominic