Thursday, December 25, 2014

Homily for Christmas Vigil Mass

Homily for the
Christmas Vigil Mass
Dec. 24, 2014
Wartburg Home, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

“Through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor:  when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal” (Preface III of the Nativity).

The Nativity (illus. in a 15th-c. Bible)
We’re all familiar with dress-up occasions.  Last Sunday I did a Baptism, for example, and of course the little one was dolled up in a white gown.  You’ve seen plenty of brides bedecked for their weddings, and probably heard the battle stories about shopping for the perfect dress, paying for it, getting it fitted, all the related paraphernalia and hoopla.  (I don’t have any 1st-hand experience with all that, but I’ve stories.)  Why, weddings are so special that even a guy will dress up!  I suspect that you dressed up special for your commitment to religious life, and many of you still dress special, i.e., in your religious habits, signifying the new creation that you have become by your relationship with Christ your spouse.  At graduations everyone directly involved puts on fancy medieval garments, and of course for the most important event of our day-to-day lives, viz., the Eucharist, the celebrant dresses up in the role of different persona, for he is alter Christus.

Literature has given us some entertaining stories about people changing their dress and thus their personae.  Maybe the best-known example is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, in which Prince Edward, future king of England, swaps places with a beggar boy named Tom Canty.

Hollywood in 1983 gave us Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places, with the same theme in story in which—quoting a marketing blurb—“A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires.”  (You can guess which actor plays the “snobbish investor” and which the “street con artist.”)

Today we celebrate a kind of trading places.  We celebrate the prince who became a pauper, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:7) in order to elevate us, to bestow on us not merely the garb of kingship but the reality of royalty, to make us slaves of sin into “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19)—not just members, but family members.  The Christmas message that the papal nuncio to Canada wrote to Canadian Catholics cites the Fathers of the Church, who write of a “sacred exchange”—the same phrase that appears in tonite’s Preface; and the nuncio writes, “The Son of God “took on what was ours, so that we might receive what was His and become similar to God.”[1]

Any doubt about who gets the better part of that swap?

Christmas elevates our spirits.  That’s partly because of love, peace, joy, and such sentiments, such hopes.  It’s also because of this truth of the Incarnation:  the Son of God truly does lift up the humanity he has embraced.  We hope, we expect, to become yet more, as St. John says:  “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2).

Dear sisters, in this Year of Consecrated Life that we recently entered, we are reminded that “the first duty of consecrated life is to make visible the marvels wrought by God in the frail humanity of those who are called.  They bear witness to these marvels not so much in words as by the eloquent language of a transfigured life, capable of amazing the world.”  That’s from Vita Consecrata of St. John Paul the Great, and Mother Mary Agnes Donovan quoted it the other day in the press conference connected with the release of the report on the visitation of American nuns.[2]

The coming of God as a human being amazes the world.  When we let the God-man transform us, remake us, clothe us in his grace and his glory, we too amaze the world.  Well, truly it’s not we who amaze the world, but Christ himself alive in us.  May Christmas renew that life in you and me.

                [1] Abp. Luigi Bonazzi, “God took on what is ours to give us what is His,” Catholic Register, Dec. 21, 2014, p. 10.
                [2] Text in National Catholic Register on-line, blog of Joan Desmond, Dec. 17, 2014.

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