By Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell
The following is the homily delivered by Bishop McDonnell on Christmas Eve at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Springfield.
The Gospel reading we just heard doesn’t go into too much detail, but the story is still familiar. Of all the Christmas Gospel readings, it’s the starkest; yet, it’s the one that places Christ most fully in the human race, and we know what happened because God became one of us. Still, we like the details, and so…. It was the second time in less than a year that Mary had made the long journey up to Jerusalem. The first time she had gone to see her cousin Elizabeth, following that strange day when Gabriel, the angelic messenger, had asked her to be the mother of the Messiah.
He had told her about Elizabeth and she knew her older cousin would need her help; so, she joined the caravan to make the long trip to Ain Karim, the little village a few miles southwest of Jerusalem where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. So much had happened since then. Elizabeth’s baby boy, John, was a thriving infant. Mary had returned to Nazareth. There, after Joseph’s initial upset and angelic dream, she had become his wife, moving away from the only home she had ever known, leaving behind her parents, Joachim and Anne, going from the familiar setting where she had grown up, putting her childhood behind her, and living now in Joseph’s house.
It was there she had expected she would give birth to her child. Circumstances from the outside world intervened. Joseph was to be among those enumerated in the Roman census, and Mary, as his wife, would have to travel with him. Off to Bethlehem, the City of David, south of Jerusalem, Joseph’s ancestral home, must they go, there to be enrolled in the census.
This second caravan was different because strong protective Joseph was there with her on the journey. Still, heavy with child, she wondered if she would be able to return home to give birth, or if the jogging of the journey might bring her to labor. And she pondered, reflecting on the angel’s message, reflecting on Israel’s age-old messianic hopes, reflecting on what “Son of God” truly meant, reflecting on what the future was to hold.
So much to reflect upon; so much to think about; so much to be concerned about. She knew from her earlier journey to Elizabeth that the average caravan from Nazareth to Jerusalem took approximately five days. Then, they would have to travel on the road south from Jerusalem another few miles to Bethlehem. They would not be alone. Many whose families traced their ancestry to Bethlehem were going there as well. In the last few miles, Mary began to realize the time for the birth of her child was approaching. Faced with the impending birth, Joseph sought shelter, but the town was crowded, filled to overflowing because of the census. There was no place to stay, until some kind soul pointed out the stable where at least there would be some protection from the elements. There Mary gave birth to her child. There the Word Incarnate, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, was born. It’s not the way most of us would have had God enter our world. No scriptwriter would have imagined salvation in a stable. But God’s ways are not ours. God wanted to be sure we realized how much he loved us – identifying with us all, especially with the lowly and least among us. And while Wise Men will enter the picture later, it was the poor and lonely shepherds in the fields who first among us focused on the Word made flesh. God loved the world so much he became one of us, like us in all things but sin. God loved the world so much that he sent down to us his only Son that the Son might raise us up to God.
No matter where we are, no matter what changes come into our lives, the Son of God remains the focus, the Word made flesh is at the heart of who we are as Catholics, Christ is present for us at Mass on the altar wherever we may be as truly as he was made present that first Christmas in that Bethlehem stable.
Christmas serves as a reminder that we have not here a lasting city; what lasts is Christ who leads us into eternity. We are called to be the pilgrim people who follow him. We are called from the caravan of life to answer with Mary, “Be it done to me according to your Word.” Whether young like Mary at the time of the Incarnation, or old as they say Elizabeth was at the time of John the Baptist’s birth, God calls us to follow the child who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached in Galilee, died in Jerusalem, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father where he promises that, as he came at Bethlehem, so will he return at the end of time to make all things right. May we who are privileged to experience his presence in Mass and the sacraments celebrate the fact that we have been blessed with the gift of faith in him who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.
Wherever you are, have a Blessed Christmas!