Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Good to see all of you here on this glorious night/day.
2018 or so years ago today, God the Son descended from heaven,
to bring us salvation.
The Creator of the Universe became one of His lowly creatures,
taking on our flesh so that He could die on the Cross for our sins.
All because He loved us.
Amazing. Magnificent. Glorious.
But you if had visited the stable in Bethlehem that day, you might never know it.
Because all you would have seen was
just a poor tiny newborn baby boy, lying in a food trough,
surrounded by smelling barn animals,
and being fussed over by His young parents.
Nothing Amazing, or Magnificent or Glorious.
Unless, you were one of the shepherds we read about (at midnight Mass),
who visited the stable that night.
Then you would have seen something much more.
As the Gospel tells us, just a few minutes before they came to the stable,
those same shepherds had been tending their flocks outside of town.
And there something happened that they would never forget.
As the Gospel relates:
“The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.”
Now, we all have some idea what an angel is,
but how many people know exactly what it means that,
“the glory of the Lord shone around them”?
To understand this, we need to go back to the Old Testament
to the book of Exodus.
And there in the passage about Moses going up Mount Sinai
to receive the 10 Commandments from God, it tells us:
“When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it,
and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai.
…To the Israelites the glory of the LORD
looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.”
…. there was thunder and lightning,
…and a very loud trumpet blast.
…. the Lord descended …in fire.…
and the whole mountain trembled violently.
…[and] Everyone in the camp trembled.”
THAT’S “the glory of the Lord”:
like thunder and lighting and clouds of consuming fire.
And that is pretty much what the shepherds saw as the angel appeared to them,
so that, as St. Luke tells us, when they saw it,
like the ancient Israelites who “trembled” at the sight,
the shepherds too, “were struck with great fear.”
And then, seeing all this amazing glorious spectacle
of fire and lightening in the sky, and hearing the angel tell them:
“today …a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”
Scripture tells us that,
“suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel.”
Now, artistic renderings of this scene normally show lots of angels in the sky,
maybe 10s, or even 100’s of angels floating around,
and usually they’re little smiling cherubs.
But the word “host” here is another word for “army,”
so we’re talking an angelic army here, we can imagine in full battle array.
And this is what the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament
says about the number of angels that involves:
“the host of heaven cannot be numbered
and the sands of the sea cannot be measured….”
And the prophet Daniel tells us:
“a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; …”
So we’re talking about a sky filled with so many angels
no one could count them—100’s of millions.
And that my friends is amazing, magnificent and glorious.
But then the shepherds go to Bethlehem
and find this tiny baby in its mother’s arms.
Where are the angels, where is the lightning and thunder and clouds and fire?
Where is the “glory of God”?
It’s there, but you just can see it.
All that is hidden, in the flesh of the Baby Jesus.
And the glory of God no longer frightens them
—now they can only be amazed by the All-Powerful and All-Glorious God’s
humility and tenderness,
and all they can feel is awe and love.
Nowadays, it seems to me, consciously or not,
we try to replicate the glory the shepherds saw in the sky.
All the lights and candles on the trees and houses, and in the churches.
All the bright wrapping paper and colorful bows.
All the sights and sounds we all associate with Christmas
find their roots and origins in this amazing manifestation of heavenly glory.
And rightly so.
But all those are merely symbols, and as beautiful and enchanting as they are,
they are nothing in comparison to the real thing,
what the shepherds saw in the sky that night.
And they are even less in comparison to what they saw in that manger
—the God who radiates that Glory, the Baby Jesus.
In a few weeks, all those symbols will be gone,
in the trash or packed away for next year.
But the glory of God remains.
As the Baby would later promise us: “behold, I am with you always.”
And so He is—always here in His full glory and power to love us and to save us.
Although He is often hidden.
He is here hidden in His Word: the Scripture and Tradition,
the wealth of teaching handed down from the Apostles to the Fathers
to us today.
He is here hidden in His Sacraments,
the outward signs instituted by Christ Himself
to manifest and pass on His graces.
And He is here hidden in His faithful people—you!
In the sacrament of baptism, and renewed in the sacrament of penance,
He has come to live in you,
where nothing but our own gravely sinful choices can drive Him away.
And He is here hidden in His Church.
Oh, I understand better than most that this seems a strange thing to say,
amidst all the scandals we hear about with priests and bishops
But the fact is, but hidden amidst all the sinners and saints
the Church is still the instrument Christ Himself established and sustains
to proclaim and protect and His word, dispense His sacraments
and nurture His people.
But the most wonderful way He remains with us is in what we’re here for today:
hidden in the Mass, or more specifically, the Eucharist.
Nowhere do we capture more fittingly the presence of the Savior
who was born in Bethlehem than in this Blessed Sacrament.
In Bethlehem, He literally entered into the world to save us and remain with us;
in the Eucharist He literally enters into each of us to save us,
and remains with hidden within us as we go out into the world.
In Bethlehem, He humbled Himself by hiding Himself human flesh;
in the Eucharist He comes again in human flesh,
humbling Himself even more by hiding in the poverty of a piece of bread
In Bethlehem, He hid His divine glory so that we could approach Him without fear,
and receive Him with love;
in the Eucharist, He does the exact same thing.
And yet that divine glory is there, in the Baby and in the Eucharist.
And just as that glory and power would ultimately shine forth in the life of Jesus,
in His life-changing preaching and His mighty miracles,
that same divine glory will shine forth in us
as the Eucharist can miraculously transform us
to live according to His preaching, if we let it.
This connection between Bethlehem and the Mass is actually foretold
in the Gospel narrative of the Nativity.
Let’s go back to those shepherds.
Many scholars believe that these were the shepherds
that Jewish law required to tend flocks of sheep year-round,
even in winter,
within the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem,
to provide for the year-round sacrifices of the Temple.
For example, somewhere near Bethlehem, just 5 miles from Jerusalem.
These shepherds would often separate a new lamb from the other sheep,
and then wrap it tightly in linen,
to protect it from injuring itself,
because only spotless lambs could be sacrificed in the Temple.
And these shepherds would go and find a new born baby
wrapped similarly in swaddling clothes,
and remember that the prophet Isaiah foretold that the savior
would be sacrificed for his people, “like a lamb led to the slaughter.”
And they found the babe laying in a manger
—a food trough for animals, as if He Himself were food.
And that manger is made of wood, like the wood of the cross.
And that manger was located in a town called “Bethlehem,”
which is Hebrew for “House of Bread.”
So that as we celebrate this holy Mass tonight/today,
and it looks like all we see is a little piece of bread,
remember the shepherds seeing that little baby,
and knowing that but truly present, though hidden,
were countless angels, and lightening and thunder and clouds of fire
—truly the glory of the Lord.
And know that that same thing, that same glory,
is hidden but surely here at this Mass tonight,
which traditional calls “Christ’s Mass”, or Christmas,
but also at every single Mass throughout the year.
If we’re paying attention, Christmas can be a powerful time of discovering Jesus,
and His presence and His love.
A time of truly experiencing the glory of the Lord.
I hope and pray that is the case for all of us today.
But as the season passes, and the lights and trees come down,
and all the bright wrapping paper goes into the trash,
and we return to our normal daily routine,
it will be so easy to forget about the glory of the Lord that we have seen.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Because that glory remains in the Church until the end of time.
And it can remain in you, if only you will recognize it hidden in the many graces
He offers to you throughout the year,
and be not afraid of that grace, but accept it eagerly and joyfully
as we do today from the humble, tender and glorious Baby Jesus.