“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” — Genesis, 1:31
December 25, 2012
This was my homily for Christmas Day:
Flags at half staff.
Moments of silence.
Tolling church bells.
These are things that have contributed to the atmosphere of the past 12 days.
And there was another: Christmas lights gone dark for a night.
Maybe many of us feel a little awkward, a little guilty even, about celebrating the holiday at all
And yet, in a way, nothing could be more appropriate.
Nothing could be more fitting at this moment in our lives together in America than to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and to remember what that birth means.
Some events — and surely an event that took place this month — may contribute to a certain pessimism about our human condition.
It’s the 21st century, we might say to ourselves in one way or another.
It’s the 21st century, and how far have we come if this is the best we can do?
What’s wrong with all of us, if some of us are capable of this, if none of us can prevent such things?
There are some philosophies — both religious and secular — that would answer those questions by saying, “What do you expect?”
“Human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures, and sooner or later they’re going to act on their worst instincts.”
But Christmas says otherwise.
What we celebrate today is that the child born in the manger was, in one person, both a human being and God himself.
We sometimes hear this expressed in negative terms.
We sometimes hear that God lowered himself, to take on the nature of miserable humankind.
But while we recognize that God is greater than any one of us, greater than all of us put together, we don’t have to look on the birth of Jesus — in fact, I suggest that we should not look on the birth of Jesus — as an act of condescension.
On the contrary, the birth of Jesus is an act of love.
In the birth of Jesus, God shows his love for us — not only because he was willing to obscure his divine nature with the physical appearance of humanity, but because he placed such a value on human nature that he wanted to show that the men and women and children he created were fit to live in his company, fit to coexist in the same person — in the child born in Bethlehem.
God is anything but pessimistic about human beings.
Jesus demonstrated that over and over again — with Matthew, with Zaccheus, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with the woman accused of adultery, with Peter, with the thief dying alongside him on a cross, and with Paul.
He told us about it in those parables that resound through the ages: the father and his two sons, the Good Samaritan, the one lost sheep from the ninety-nine.
Jesus, who looked on human beings with such optimism, encountered in his lifetime Herod and his sons, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and people whose jealousy or paranoia inspired them to criticize him, attack him, ostracize him, eventually kill him.
But even at that extremity, the last thing he said about such people was, “Father, forgive them.”
And while we may not be able to look as deeply into those souls as Jesus did, we take him at his word.
Every now and then, someone — for reasons that we really do not understand — commits an act that might make us ask us just how low human nature can descend.
But we don’t have to look far — and we didn’t have to look far this month — to find far more people, including people sitting in this church, whose heroism and generosity help us to see just how high human nature can soar.
The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are essentially good.
Christmas — and perhaps this Christmas especially — is a good time to recall that and to celebrate it in the words of the hymn.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”