Dear People of God, our Christmas celebration evokes not simply emotional rejoicing but deep, existential, joy; because it answers our most desperate needs by revealing God’s Personal love, it initiates our release from self-destroying bondage, and it offers us hope of a future which -- though humanly inconceivable -- corresponds nevertheless to our deepest human aspirations and stirs up within us spontaneously pure and unprecedented delight.
The great prophet Isaiah lived and preached in Jerusalem some 750 years before Jesus. He was well connected, having access to those in positions of authority and power in and around Jerusalem; however, God chose him to proclaim a message that was very different from people's expectations. Listen to this:
For thus said the LORD – His hand strong upon me – warning me not to walk in the way of this people: "Do not call conspiracy what this people call conspiracy, nor fear what they fear, nor feel dread. (Isaiah 8:11-13 NAB RE)
Now that sort of commission is not easy, indeed it would be frightening for most people. Just imagine, would you want to proclaim a message you knew would offend important individuals and might stir up public anger because of popular prejudices? What if you were to be labelled racist, sexist, old-fashioned, or intolerant for speaking out? Well, although Isaiah might never have been labelled in such terms, nevertheless he was made unpopular because of the message given him to speak in the name of God against the mass of the people and against their leaders.
Therefore, if we can understand something of the reason why God sent Isaiah to proclaim in this way the coming of Emmanuel, we will also learn something about the attitude in which we should celebrate this wondrous season of Christmas, the Emmanuel season. The Lord said:
Sons have I raised and reared, but they have rebelled against Me. An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master's manger, but Israel does not know, My people has not understood. (1:2-3)
In those times the father had power of life and death over his children and the duty of children was to honour and obey their father; to rebel against him, by word or deed could lead to death. God was saying, therefore, that the ox and the donkey, stupid animals though they were, knew -- that is they loved, trusted, and obeyed -- their master; but Israel did not have the sense of even the ox or the donkey, for they were a rebellious people who would neither trust nor obey the Lord their God.
Don’t think that Israel was godless, however. Far from it: every nation in those days had its own god, for the national god was part of the national identity. Consequently, to keep up with the Jones’ so to speak, God’s Chosen People kept up the public worship of Yahweh, the God they alone worshipped among all the nations. They offered Him all sorts of sacrifices of innumerable lambs and bulls, goats and doves. The seasonal national assemblies in their world-famous Temple at Jerusalem were distinguished from others around them by the accompanying music and incense, pomp and splendour: there were regular hours for official, public, sacrifice and prayer each day, while individuals and groups could meet to study the Law and the Scriptures, or to celebrate more private sacred meals together before their God. All this devotion, however, was more apparent than real, for the hearts of God’s chosen People were not with their God: the rich sought and flaunted wealth and power, living lives of luxury with no concern for others, being too often drunkards prepared to sell each other down the river to feed their addictions; while the poor turned to idols and destroyed each other. Listen to the Lord speaking to both factions:
Ah! Those who join house to house who connect field with field. Ah! Those who are champions at drinking wine, who acquit the guilty for bribes … New moon and sabbath, calling assemblies --- festive convocations with wickedness – these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest. When you spread out your hands (in prayer), I will close My eyes to you.
The people will be oppress one another … yes, each one their neighbour; the child will be insolent toward the elder, and the base toward the honourable. (5:8, 22-23; 1:13-15; 3:4-5)
Israel, indeed, did not know her God; Isaiah, however, had personally seen the holiness of God in a majestic vision that had filled him with awesome reverence and fear:
I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of His garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above, each of them had six wings. One cried out to the other: "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with His glory!" At the sound of that cry the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. (6:1-4)
That is why Isaiah was filled with zeal for the Lord; that is why, though he pitied his erring compatriots, he was nevertheless thoroughly disgusted at their practices.
The sickness of Israel was shown most clearly in the case of Ahaz, the King of Israel. At that time he and his people were in great peril: local enemies were literally pressing him on all sides, and he was thinking of turning to the dreaded Assyrians for help! Indeed, he was thinking of making Judah -- God’s Chosen People! -- a vassal state of the mighty, pagan, Assyrian empire. Therefore the Lord sent Isaiah to meet Ahaz, and the meeting was not to take place in the palace but at a spring called Gihon just outside the city.
Isaiah delivered the Lord’s message to Ahaz, telling him not to turn to the Assyrians for help, but to trust in the Lord:
Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm. (7:9)
But the king wanted to see something striking, he wanted quick results, he could not just trust the Lord: ‘the Lord knows how long that might take’ we can imagine him saying to himself. And so, at the spring Gihon, where the kings of Judah were traditionally crowned, where all members of David’s line had been given solemn promises by the Lord of Hosts, here was Ahaz -- their successor and himself one of David’s line -- proposing to ignore the spiritual promises of the Lord and to turn rather to the immediately tangible earthly power of the loathed and feared King of Assyria.
Before allowing Ahaz to go ahead with such a betrayal, the Lord, the God of Israel, offered him one last chance: not a verbal promise as had been given to David and Solomon his fathers; no, this time the Lord accommodatingly offered Ahaz something he could see and see quickly, a sign of his own choosing which the Lord would perform:
Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as the sky.
But would you believe it, Ahaz, the king, was even more of a hypocrite, even more insincere before the Lord, than so many of his people still flocking to the temple with their vain sacrifices, still spreading out their arms in ostentatious but empty public and personal prayers. Ahaz, like them, pretending to be devout, said:
I will not ask, I will not tempt the Lord! (7:12)
Isaiah was both astounded and frustrated:
He said, "Listen now, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name Him Emmanuel. (7:13-14, cf. Mt. 1:23)
To understand something of this sign, we must remember that the king in Israel -- the legitimate king, that is, of David’s line -- was protected by God’s promise, and therefore he himself was a sign to the people that God was with them. That is why the king was most prominent in their worship, more prominent than the Temple priests; Judah was the Chosen People of God and Judah’s king of David’s line was considered to be a son of God, God’s prime instrument for His People’s well-being.
And so, the Lord’s sign was to be a child, a boy child to be named Emmanuel, “God-with-us”. This child, however, was to be not a mere sign of God’s presence with His People, and most certainly not a lying sign such as Ahaz; no, this Child was to be in all literal truth, GOD-WITH-US. It was as if the Lord were saying: “You, Ahaz, are no true king of My people, you are a disgrace. I will give My people a true King, My own true Son: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God”; and this true King will be no descendent of yours Ahaz, you will have no part in Him for:
Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a Son, and they shall name Him Emmanuel.
People of God, those are the historic roots of our Christmas celebration and from those roots we learn that, to celebrate Christmas fittingly, we must, first and foremost, trust God wholeheartedly. We must not put our trust in money or power, nor our delight in earthly prospects or pleasures. We, as Catholic Christians, are called to trust and delight in the Father Who is giving us His Son, the seal of all His promises to us. And, in this holy season, we must renew our trust and confidence in Jesus’ own promise to His Church -- the one, true, Catholic Church -- to be with her to the end of time, guiding and preserving her in her struggle with and despite the towering powers of evil.
But there are other roots for our celebrations: roots thrusting deep into our very being, for we are indeed all of sinful stock. The sins to be seen and heard of in our world today are so disgustingly gross and horrific, unfeeling and barbaric, one might think them inhuman, things that only the Nazis could do; but no, there was Stalin in Russia, Mao tse Tung in China, the killing fields of Cambodia, there are yet many others still all over the world: ISIL and present day terrorists, dictators, duplicitous leaders, exploiters, drug traffickers, even deviant mothers and fathers!! So, though horrific, the sin of the world is not inhuman … it is resident in the human heart of men and women all over the world. Indeed, it is resident in our own hearts and minds! For, just as some of the greatest saints have been able to say with the utmost sincerity, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’; so surely, each of us is, in various ways, aware of tendencies and proclivities capable of abhorrent developments lurking in the deep shadows of our ego!
Our rejoicing at Christmas, therefore, is real indeed, one with that of St. Paul:
I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 7: 23-25)
Jesus is coming to His Church anew this Christmas to renew His promises to her, and to give us her children the opportunity to express our gratitude, renew our confidence, and stir up our hope, for His future coming in glory. Having been baptized as members of the Body of Christ we are assured that we are already children of God. We have been promised an inheritance and a home, eternal joy and fulfilment, in the Kingdom of our heavenly Father. We have been endowed with the Gift of the Spirit Who wills to lead us into all truth and enable us to become true children of God, delighting in the fulfilment of our calling. No matter what our situation, no matter how difficult or dark the way may seem, we should never doubt that Jesus is coming this Christmas to help us in all our needs, and we can be totally confident that there is nothing which may oppress our lives or threaten our hopes, from which He cannot free us.
So, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, rejoice greatly this Christmas, for we who are disciples of Jesus are privileged to welcome Him this day into our Church, into our hearts and lives, and indeed, into our modern world, anew. St. Paul assures us that:
However many are the promises of God, their “Yes” is in Him. (2 Cor. 1:20)
Jesus’ last gift to His disciples was Mary to be our mother, and we always remember what her cousin Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said of her:
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled! (Luke 1:45)
Therefore let us implore her to rejoice our lives by her prayers that will protect, nourish, and promote the faith-likeness of Jesus living in us: impoverished as regards our commitment to Him; unappreciated by our ignorance of and indifference to His plans for us; above all, so little loved by us, as repeatedly evidenced by our reluctance to hear Him and our failures to obey Him.
Hail holy Queen, Mother of mercy, Hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.