Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas
December 25, 2016
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
What a great day.
So many wonderful things going on
—the family, the food, the gifts, so many things.
But of course, one of the things that makes it different from every other day is
all the great memories of Christmases past
that make this day seem bigger than life.
I’m sure all of you have those memories.
I know I do.
Memories of my childhood Christmases with my Mom and Dad
and brothers and sisters.
Christmases when I was a young man, having a great time with all my friends.
Christmases as a priest in the various parishes
—and spending the rest of the day with my sister and cousin,
and especially with my nieces and nephews.
Memories filled with warmth, kindness, generosity, and love.
But if I’m honest with myself, there are other memories too.
Memories that are not so happy, some even terribly sad.
Christmases without my family, when I was away from home.
Christmases with my family, that ended in arguments and hurt feelings.
Not to mention the Christmas my Mom died.
Christmases in parishes where the parishioners didn’t really want me there.
And even Christmases as a child when things went bad
—I still remember a Christmas when I was about 5 years old
when I ruined everyone’s day by complaining
because I didn’t get the pony I asked for.
Of course, these not-so-happy memories are usually easily pushed aside
by the happy ones.
But still, they’re there.
Because that’s human life.
And the sadness of these Christmas celebrations reminds us
that celebrations founded simply on human sentiment and affection
—as wonderful as they can be—
always fall short of what we wish they could be.
And the only way to make the celebration truly what it should be
is to center it on and fill it with the one whose feast it is,
the one who transforms passing human happiness
to everlasting divine joy: Jesus Christ.
Which is why we come here today, to this Mass.
For me, my favorite memories of Christmas always come back to Mass.
Because no matter what else happens at Mass,
even if the music isn’t up to par, or the preaching is weak,
or if the church is too cold.
Jesus always comes to us in the flesh,
just as he did as a Baby on the first Christmas morning.
Perhaps my favorite memory of a Christmas Mass goes back 32 years ago.
It was a Mass that changed my life.
I was about 24 at the time, about 7 years before I went to the seminary,
and really wasn’t practicing my faith—I hadn’t been to Mass in months.
So, on Christmas Eve I found myself at a party with some friends,
and let’s just say it wasn’t the kind of party I’d go today.
Not terribly scandalous, but not very Christian.
But at about 11, I left the party to join some of my family
in doing something very different—going to Midnight Mass.
Now, at the time I viewed Midnight Mass like I viewed
the Christmas Tree, presents, eggnog, and the Nutcracker
—not as something holy, but just another Christmas tradition –
it’s what we did.
But when I was at Mass, for some reason, all that changed.
Of course, the Christmas hymns helped some, and a decent homily helped too.
But it was at the consecration that a light went on.
The priest lifted up the host and said,
“This is my Body, which will be given up for you.”
That started my mind going, as it struck me: this is Christmas:
God the Son giving himself to us in a Body;
the Creator coming to us in a body, to love us, to even die for us.
And here he is, doing all this, in the Eucharist, on Christmas Night.
And suddenly Christmas wasn’t just about the gifts and good cheer,
but about the Creator of the Universe coming down to earth
as a vulnerable little Baby to love us and save us
—and all the profound meaning that comes with that.
These thoughts kept turning over in my head as Mass went on.
And then suddenly something terrible happened:
people started to go to Communion.
And instead of casually joining them as I usually did
in my infrequent visits to Mass,
I was frozen in my pew.
I wasn’t a horrible person,
but in reality, my whole life was a casual and gradual rejection of Christ,
and my celebration of Christmas had very little to do
with the love that shines from face of the Baby Jesus.
How could I go up and pretend I was in Communion with him?
And all that, as I say, changed my life.
And here I am.
Not perfect, as you well know, but happier than I have ever been,
in communion with Christ.
Nowhere can we understand Christmas better than we can here at Mass.
That’s why we call it “Christmas”—it literally means “Christ’s Mass.”
Because at every Mass we come face to face with Jesus.
Although the Eucharist is first and foremost the sacrifice of the Cross,
it is also clearly the same body born in Bethlehem.
The same body that wasa given to us in Bethlehem,
that is given to us in the Eucharist.
The tie between Christmas and the Eucharist is very clear.
Jesus was born in “Bethlehem,” which is Hebrew for “house of Bread,”
and the Eucharist is the “Bread of Life.”
A manger is something you lay food in for animals,
and Jesus is laid in a manger to become food for us in the Eucharist.
The presence of shepherds reminds us of their sheep,
which were probably the lambs kept, even in the winter,
to be sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem, just 3 miles away.
And Jesus is the Lamb of God,
who would become the new sacrifice 33 years later in Jerusalem
—the same sacrifice re-presented at every Mass.
In both the Nativity and the Eucharist Christ the Lord comes to us bodily,
but in a hidden way:
as he comes neither
in the glory of the eternal Creator of the Universe,
nor covered with blood and wounds of the Cross,
at Christmas as a humble vulnerable Baby,
and in the Eucharist as simple food to sustain us.
At Christmas he comes to us in his Body,
vulnerable to the effects of
a cold winter and the betrayal of sinful men, like King Herod,
and in the Eucharist He comes to us in his Body
vulnerable to the effects of
cold hearts and the betrayal of sinful people, like me and you.
And just as he comes to us and gives himself to us
in both the Nativity and the Eucharist,
he also requires a response from us to both.
Do we respond by reducing them to mere sentimental traditions,
celebrating Christmas and going to Mass or Communion
simply because we’ve always done it or because it makes us feel good?
Or do we respond by believing He is here, He has come to love us,
and by loving Him in return?
He does come to us today
in the remembrance of Christmas
and in his real presence in the Eucharist.
At this Christmas Eucharist He says to us:
I come to you, will you receive me?
I come to free you from your sins,
to give you a life not of passing sentimental feelings
but of true love, of real and enduring happiness and peace of heart.
I come not just as a cute baby,
but as a babe who grew into a man
who taught you how to love and live as I created you to.
I come to show you how much I love you
by laying down my divine life in heaven to come as a sweet lovable baby,
who went on to lay down my human life on earth
as the suffering Crucified one.
One day, He says, I will die for you, but today, Christmas, I come to live for you.
Today I hide both my heavenly glory and my bloody suffering
so you can look at me and just see simple innocent, open and tender love.
So you will not run fearfully from my power or my suffering,
but run merrily to the open arms of my infant embrace.
In my birth as a newborn babe I show you
I have come for a rebirth for all mankind,
to make all things new.
To restore lost innocence.
To replace vice with virtue, fear with peace.
To give you my life and love to share in, if only you will accept it and follow me.
Maybe you don’t love me, but l love you,
and gave up so much to come to you.
Because no matter how many parties you go to,
no matter how many gifts you open,
no matter how many friends and family surround you
—they will all, eventually pass away.
But I will never pass away.
Behold, I am here with you always.
—not only in the remembrance of Christmas,
but in my word, my Church, my grace,
and, yes, in the Eucharist.
This is what he says to us at this Christmas Eucharist.
Again, how do we respond to him?
Do we respond to him like Mary, saying,
“let it be done to me according to your word”?
Or like the Kings who came to worship Him and give him gifts?
Or do we respond like the innkeepers who had no room for him?
Or like King Herod who set out to destroy this rival to his own authority?
It’s easy to reject Jesus today
—after all, he’s just a little Baby, and he comes to us
looking like a piece of Bread.
But why would you want to reject him?
Go on with your parties and dinners today.
Go on and open your presents and enjoy good food and drink.
And most of all, go on and bathe in the warmth
of the affection of family and friends.
All those are good things—enjoy!
But remember, all of them, every single good thing you experience today,
is a gift from the Baby Jesus on his birthday.
All that happiness is just a taste of the perfect Joy that Jesus wants to give you,
if only you will let him.
Memories of Christmases past help transform every new Christmas
into something bigger than life.
I hope you leave here today
and have the most wonderful Christmas you’ve ever had,
making new and great memories to cherish forever.
But more than that, I pray that through the mystery and grace
of this Christmas Eucharist—this “Christ’s Mass”—
and through the words of Jesus,
“this is my Body which will be given up for you,”
you will forever remember today as not only
the day you rediscovered His great gift to you,
but also the day you accepted that gift,
and gave yourself to him in return.
May you have a blessed and holy and truly merry Christmas.