Christmas! (year B)
A few months ago I agreed - against my better judgment - to participate in a musical. I just had a small singing part in the performance. The organizers originally wanted me dance as well but I drew the line and said no, which you’d have to agree, if you have seen my lack of coordination and natural rhythm, was a happy decision for everyone involved. Afterwards a friend of mine who had seen the performance sent me an email. She explained that it was good that I participated in the musical because it showed everyone that “you can still shine even if you are not perfect”. My first reaction was, “aww that’s nice”, but after a minute I thought “what do you mean I wasn't perfect!” Participating in the musical was a new experience for me. I was struck how different it was to be a part of the story of the musical rather than just watching the story from the audience. When I have watched a story in the past - whether it be in a movie or play - it had a certain effect on me. It made me think or feel differently. These effects, however, quickly passed. Actually being part of the story was a different experience altogether. It really changed me; I was challenged and had to learn and grow. In some way I became a better person because of entering into the story.
I was reminded of my experience in the musical by a conversation I recently had a with a friend. Though raised Catholic, he no longer attends Mass, even on Christmas. I asked why that was. He explained that he stopped coming to Christmas Mass because he “it’s always the same story that I have heard so many times”. I suggest that, just was the case for the musical, there is an incredible difference between hearing the Christmas story and becoming part of it. Unless we choose to become a part of Jesus’ story, it doesn't really change us.
When we look at a Nativity scene or listen to the Christmas gospel, we find that it is full of people who chose to become a part of the Christmas story and had their lives changed as a result. We see Mary who said yes to God’s plan and became the mother of Jesus. Beside her is Joseph, who courageously welcomed Mary and Jesus into his heart and home and cared for them in the face of great adversity. We see the shepherds who left their flocks to worship the newborn Child. In some days we will see the wise men coming from far away to worship the King and bring Him gifts. All these people chose to play a role in the greatest love story ever told. The story of how God saved us all by becoming a small, poor, vulnerable child because He loves us. Though they had to make sacrifices, we see in the Gospels their lives were filled with joy. Their lives became an adventure upon encountering Jesus.
Another important group of characters are important to mention: the angels. Each Nativity scene normally has an angel in it and we often place an angel on the top of our Christmas trees. This is to remind us of the important role that angels played at every stage in the birth of Jesus. It was an angel who appeared to Mary to announce that she was conceive a Son. The same angel, Gabriel, appeared to Zechariah telling him that his wife would conceive John the Baptist in her old age. Angels announced the birth of Jesus to the lowly shepherds. We continue to echo the song of praise they sang that night each time we sing the Gloria at Mass. Angels were involved in the naming of Jesus. They warned Joseph of Herod’s plot to kill Jesus and instructed the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. Angels told them when they could safely return. The entire story of Jesus’ birth is an explosion of angelic activity.
Angels and all the other characters we find in the Nativity scene become part of the Christmas story when they decided to accept Jesus into their lives. Even when Jesus was a baby, he provoked people to make a choice. Is He God, King and Saviour? If so, will you choose to have a relationship with Him and follow Him? Many people answered and continue to answer “no”. Some, like the innkeepers, simply ignore Jesus. Others, like Herod, actively fight against Him. This drama of choosing for or against Jesus extended to the angels. Though there are no details given in scripture, there are some stories, both recent and old, describing how this came about. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lords of the Rings and the Hobbit, wrote a book called the Silmarillion in which he tells the drama of the angels’ choice with reference to song. Before the material world was created, God (called Eru) presented his song which told the entire story of creation to the newly created angelic beings (called Ainur). Though most of them gladly joined in the song, others broke away from the harmony of the music and created discord. There is an older tradition which gives more details. Before God created the world, He revealed to the angels His plan to create humanity. He explained that they would fall because of Sin. God also told His angels about His plan to send His Son to become a man and save humanity. Most of the angels said yes to God’s plan and a relationship with Jesus. These are the angels who played an active role in the Christmas story as God’s messengers. Some angels, however, could not say yes to God’s plan and to Jesus. They thought that it was below the dignity of God to take on human flesh. They certainly could never worship a man, which they saw as below themselves. These angels who said no to God include Satan and the fallen angels. They actively rebelled against Jesus from the moment of His birth and have tempted humanity to do the same ever since.
Like the good angels, we need to choose to enter the Christmas story by saying “yes” to a relationship with Jesus. One Christmas I received a gift but instead of opening it, seeing what was inside and enjoying it, I put it on a shelf and forgot about it. Months later I opened the gift only to find that inside were homemade sweets that had gone bad. Pretty stupid of me, right! The greatest gift we receive at Christmas is the chance to have a relationship with Jesus. This is a gift that we have to accept and unwrap. Sometimes, unfortunately, we do with the gift of our faith what I did with the sweets. We look at it from time to time but never really open it and enjoy it. By the time we get around to it, it might be too late. In the end, we are the ones who suffer when we do this. As we saw in the Christmas story, those who say yes to a relationship with Jesus live lives filled with joy. I once read somewhere that “if you want to take your faith and put it on a shelf high out of reach of your daily life, the devil will gladly hold the ladder”.
Today we have once again heard the story of Christmas. Ultimately if we only listen to the story time and time again it becomes boring. Entering into the story makes all the difference. It changes our life and fills us with joy. Let us choose some new way to deepen our relationship with Jesus this Christmas. Perhaps we can choose to pray regularly each day. Maybe we can decide to read a part of the gospel each day. We could also choose to make attending Mass a central part of each Sunday. Finally, you might choose to take part in a new initiative we are starting in the parish. Beginning at the end of January you can choose to participate in a Discovery study. This is a six week faith study done in small groups. When I was a university student and struggling with my faith, I agreed - after much convincing - to participate in this very same study and it helped me greatly. In it, you will discover again the basic gospel message: God’s desire for a relationship with us, our need for a Saviour and the different Jesus make in our life. You will discover in a new way the great difference that having a personal relationship with Jesus makes and the joy that comes from sharing your faith in a small community. Choose some way to become a part of Jesus’ story this Christmas. Let it be the Christmas gift you give yourself.