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Those of you who have been to my home during the Christmas season know that I have the custom of hanging the Christmas cards I receive on a piece of yarn hanging from the ceiling from one end of the living room to the other. I’ve been doing that ever since I was a teenager and saw it done in the house of a friend. The cards are so nice and it would be a shame to just put them in a pile to be thrown away after a few days. When I sat down to write this sermon there were about fifty cards hanging on two strings. Of the fifty or so, the vast majority of them have a religious motif—mostly pictures of the Madonna and Child, a few with Saint Joseph, an angel or two, a couple of Wise men, and a shepherd.
The significant thing about the Christmas cards—and this was pointed out to me by someone far more observant than I—is that there are no duplicates. Each card of the fifty is different from every other card. That suggests something to me that is very positive—that perhaps Christmas has not become quite as secularized as you might think it has from watching the television and reading the papers. The people who print Christmas cards are astute enough to recognize that there is a big market for Christmas cards that actually reflect the nature of Christmas. Of course, as a priest, I probably receive more religious cards than the average person—but the point is that they are out there, in great variety, because Christianity is still “out there” and Christians still recognize that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ. And that, I believe, is a reason for optimism.
A week from today we will usher in a new year—the year of our Lord 2006—Anno Dómini—A.D. 2006. The same folks who would like to play down the birth of Christ would like to see that abbreviation, A.D., go away (along with B.C. for “before Christ”). But so far, no one has suggested that we re-number the years. So, perhaps, we have another reason for optimism.
Certainly, things in the world are far from wonderful, but today is Christmas, so it is best to ignore the world’s imperfections and concentrate on the reason for our rejoicing.
Nearly three thousand years ago, God spoke of a mission for His people—we are told through the prophet Isaias that we are to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon those who live in darkness.” We are told to “sing the praises of the Lord to the ends of the earth.... to shout from the tops of the mountains .... to give glory to the Lord. Our mission—which we must accept—is to communicate the love and the knowledge of Jesus Christ to those around us by means of our Christmas joy.
Saint Leo the Great, who reigned as Pope during the middle of the fifth century A.D., wrote in one of his sermons that “it would be illegal to be sad today, for today is Life’s birthday; the birthday of that Life that takes away the sting of death and brings the promise of an eternal hereafter.”
Pope Leo went on to explain that
“The Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who «in the beginning was with God,» through whom «all things were made» and «without whom nothing was made,» became man with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death:
“bending Himself to take on our humility without decrease in His own majesty,
“[by] remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the form of [mankind] to the form in which He is equal to God the Father,
“and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower [nature of man] would not be swallowed up in its exaltation, nor the higher [nature of God be] impaired by this association
“Majesty took on humility, strength [took on] weakness, eternity [took on] mortality:
“and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition ... true God and true man were combined to form one Lord
“So that ... one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.”
Very simply, the cause of our joy is the fact that we have been redeemed from the sin of Adam and Eve. Even though our lowly first parents had sinned against the Infinite God, and could do nothing to redeem themselves, God Himself determined to redeem them, and us. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who had existed with the Father from all eternity, decided that at the appropriate time He would become one of us—and that as one of us He would plead our case before the throne of God the Father from the altar of the Cross.
The cause of our joy is that what once was lost has been restored—we have, once again, the opportunity to be the adopted sons and daughters of God. The world may be a difficult place—sometimes a saddening place—but hope has been restored; the hope of future immortality.
Pope Leo the Great, whom I have quoted so liberally, is a good example of this. He lived at a time of great turmoil—perhaps even greater than our own. The Church itself was beset by serious heresies. In Rome itself, the false notion of Manicheanism was spreading like fire; the idea that all material things were evil, and that man is a good spirit trapped in an evil body. At the same time, in the East there was another powerful heresy which denied the humanity of Christ; an attack, precisely, on what we celebrate today at Christmas.
Civil society was in similar turmoil. The barbarian invasions were in full swing. In 452 the Átilla and his Huns entered northern Italy from far away Mongolia. To this day nobody is quite sure how he did it, but without any army, Leo managed to talk Átilla into turning around and sparing Rome (after coming all the way from north of China!). But then in 455 the Vandals came from Germany and pillaged Rome—the Vandals were so destructive that their name is forever enshrined in our language with the word “vandalism”! They also brought the Arian heresy with them, denying the other aspect of Christmas: the divinity of Christ.
But Leo, nonetheless, preserved his composure, in what is certainly a good lesson for our own times of turmoil in Church and society.
Today is a day, he says, on which it would be “unlawful to be sad.” For, in spite of all of the turmoil of the world around us, no one is excluded from sharing in the joy of Christ.
“Rejoice if you are a saint, for you are drawing nearer to the palm of victory.
“Rejoice [even] if you are a sinner; for your Savior offers you pardon”!
“Rejoice [even] if you are a pagan”; for today God calls all of us to life!