When we look at the world around us and consider the overall evidence of people’s understanding of and response to the message of Christmas -- even though the majority no longer recognize and accept that message as the root inspiration of their Christmas celebrations, and even though others may distort it horribly -- we cannot fail to see that in even the most modern consciousness, Christmas is regarded as the time for rejoicing with a joy that is singularly untouched, unaffected, by any other considerations.
I am emphasizing the joy of Christmas because it is an essential element in our Christian life. Christmas is, of its very nature, a time for supremely good and holy rejoicing; it is not just a season which comes round, apparently willy-nilly, once a year; rather, Christmas is meant to gradually permeate and form our basic Catholic character.
However, it seems to me that too many Catholics have forgotten the joyous aspect of our Faith in their relationship with God; for they regard their practice of the Faith mainly as a duty, an obligation; and God is seen, above all, as One demanding obedience, One Whose rule in their lives -- far from liberating them and enabling them to know true joy -- they find somewhat oppressive.
Now these experiences are not totally wrong and unaccountable, for we have to endure growing-pains in our Christian discipleship -- we have to face up to the devil who is ever seeking to tempt us, weaken our faith and destroy our resolve; while, on the other hand, we constantly need to learn that humility and patient endurance which will allow the Spirit to guide us in the ways of Jesus and gradually strengthen us through His discipline. But any resultant acceptance of an attitude that merely endures and reluctantly ‘puts-up-with’ the demands of the Faith, would be a sad distortion of the truly fulfilling and ‘mind-blowing’ experience of, and loving response to, Him Whom Jesus taught us to call ‘Our Father’. Indeed, without the mutually complementary and fulfilling balances first of Christmas Joy and then of Easter Love and Hope, such an attitude of merely reluctant toleration of the demands of the Faith would become quite corrosive of any truly Catholic character. Christmas, therefore, comes round each year to introduce a most holy joy into our Christian awareness and to cement it into our character as an absolutely essential part of our religious psychology and personal make-up.
Of course, the pagan rejoicing at Christmas, being so often excessive, rationally un-motivated, and even licentious, is an evil abuse and misrepresentation of Christmas joy; but, the abuse of Christmas does not, cannot, be allowed to undermine or diminish the abiding and enduring reality of that JOY which is intended by God for His children, to characterise not only this wondrous season, but the whole of their lives. This joy cannot be sullied by human abuse because it is a joy centred on a most beautiful Child, indeed a heavenly Child: God’s all-holy and only-begotten Son, given to mankind through a totally immaculate Virgin, and sent as Son of Man to win salvation for all His brothers and sisters who will accept Him.
Christmas rejoicing has, however, even for many sincere believers, been gradually watered down into a merely human and, indeed, childish rejoicing; and then, thus robbed of its inherent inspiration and vigour, it has been further disfigured and degraded to such an extent that it has become a season of more-or-less sensual pleasure-seeking, where, at the best, that pleasure-seeking is done through gifts, and the merely human joy of giving and receiving gifts, is regarded as the holiness of Christmas. Among non-believers, however, or among non-observant believers in a post-Christian era, Christmas rejoicing is too-often used as an excuse for licentious excesses which have become totally unchristian, involving human exploitation, drug taking, anti-social behaviour, and even openly criminal activities; in such circles, a hang-over on wakening up is commonly regarded as the amusing sign of what is considered to be a good night-out the day before.
Among Catholics one reason for the lack of true Christmas joy in the practice of our Faith is due to the fact that we have also deformed Easter. Because the sufferings of Christ have, in the past, been given excessive prominence in popular preaching and devotional practices, Easter has been gradually deprived of what is of supreme importance, namely, the example and inspiration of love -- Jesus’ love for His Father and for us -- and the call to hope and confidence in the Risen Lord of Glory. Now, if the Easter message of love and hope to the Christian soul is often obscured and muted, is it any wonder that the Christmas message of joy no longer clearly characterises the life of too many Catholics today? Duty, obedience and fear are a pretty dismal residue from the original glorious endowment of joy, love, and hope.
People of God, we should try to open our hearts anew to the joy of Christmas. We should pray to the Holy Spirit and beg Him to renew our lives according to those parting words of Jesus:
I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)
Joy in the Lord is an essential part of our Christian and Catholic heritage, and we should not deprive ourselves of that which is meant to characterise us in Jesus. We must not, however, repeat past mistakes, for it is a joy that God gives, not one that we try to procure for ourselves. Now, don’t think I am wanting you to eschew, reject, human joys; far from it, for I repeat that those human joys which are according to Christ and used as such, are also a gift from God. However, the Christmas Gift is, above all, a cause for spiritual, supernatural, joy; it is a Gift given to those who, first of all, pray for it, and who then try to delight in the Lord and live for His glory.
As you heard in the Gospel reading:
Jesus, the true Light, was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him;
and that is still the condition of all present-day pagan revellers who in no way intend to celebrate the Name of Jesus at Christmas.
He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.
That too is still the present situation in the case of those who are merely nominal Christians and Catholics.
For ourselves, however, and for all who are sincerely seeking the Lord, we are then told that:
As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name;
and that is the source of our Christmas joy. Because we sincerely believe in Jesus, we know that in our baptism we were given a new life, we were born anew:
Not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
In Jesus, those words we heard in the second reading apply also to each of us:
You are My son, this day I have begotten you.
I will be a Father to (you), and (you) shall be a son to Me.
My dear People of God, we have wondrous cause for rejoicing at Christmas; or rather, wondrous cause to begin rejoicing, begin, that is, a never-ending, ever-deepening and developing spirit of rejoicing, in our lives as Christians and Catholics. However, make no mistake: God gives the cause of our rejoicing, but He expects us, freely and personally, to do the rejoicing. How, therefore, do we learn to rejoice as true disciples of Jesus?
For this we should turn to the other principal character in the drama that is Christmas, to Mary the one addressed by God’s angel with the command:
Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women! (Luke 1:28)
Mary began her rejoicing first of all by trusting wholeheartedly in God: adultery by one betrothed (as seemed to be the situation opening up before Mary) was punishable by stoning to death in accordance with the Law; but, far from worrying herself sick about her future predicament, Mary hurried off help her cousin Elizabeth cope with pregnancy in her old age. Mary’s total trust in God’s word enabled her to be totally forgetful of self and totally available for others.
Mary continued, strengthened, and deepened, her rejoicing in the Lord thanks to her great gratitude:
My spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour, for He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. (Luke 1:47-49)
Those are the two essential ingredients for Christian rejoicing: complete trust in God, and, on the basis of that trust, the ability to look at things from His point of view and learn gratitude. The Annunciation could have been, depending on how Mary looked at it, either a cause for great rejoici or one of deep anxiety: death and dishonour or blessing and renown. Mary, however, had no hesitation, no doubt:
He who is mighty has done great things for me; henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
Anyone who would become a true disciple of Jesus should learn from Mary to rejoice by steadfastly trusting in the Lord; by consistently refusing to indulge solicitous considerations for personal well-being and advantage; and also by developing a grateful awareness of blessings already received from God: blessings such as good parents and family; loyal and true friends; personal talents; guidance received and help given; health of mind and body; hopes that draw you on and ideals and aspirations that inspire you … while few have all these blessings, none are bereft of all of them; every one of us has some cause for gratitude to God, and such causes, once recognised and gratefully acknowledged, readily multiply themselves so as to be seen with increasing clarity and appreciated with ever deeper gratitude as time goes on.
The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The Law was a challenge, a requirement, written down as a legal document. The Gospel of grace and truth, on the other hand, is a call, an invitation. In the Gospel message and in the Person of Jesus God is manifesting Himself, making Himself known, so that He might attract and lovingly draw those who -- through faith in Jesus and baptism in the Spirit -- have or will become His children. And surely, it is no hard thing to encourage such children to learn to trust, and show gratitude to, the Father Who so lovingly approaches them as does our heavenly Father through Jesus and in the Spirit?
Learn to trust, People of God, grow in gratitude, and joy will fill your heart. Look at Mary; imitate her attitude to life: shall I worry about possible threats and difficulties or shall I trust God wholeheartedly? Can one who has been reborn in Jesus by the Spirit, one who has been made a true child of the Father, one to whom the Father promises:
I will be a Father to (you), and (You) shall be a Son to Me,
can such a one have any hesitation? Follow Mary! After all Jesus has given us to her and her to us as our mother. Follow Mary, and learn to rejoice anew in your practice of the Faith: it is not just a Law to be obeyed, it is your Father’s loving invitation and call for you to learn to know and love Him more and more in and with Jesus. And because it is your Father’s call, it does not just come from outside and hit your ears; you are His child and His call to you re-echoes in your heart, and, in the deepest -- perhaps still secret and unknown to you – recesses of your being, where its reverberation repeatedly provokes the response of like to like:
Come my beloved (child), (there are) all manner (of blessings), new and old, which I have laid up for you. Come. (Song of Songs 7:13)