Christmas Eve 2017 – Sung Mass 7:00 PM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 9:1-6 Titus 2:11-24 Luke 2:1-14
       + In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
       Over the past few weeks, the world around us has been going through its annual drill getting ready for Christmas. We’ve been decorating, baking, partying, and of course, shopping. We here at church have been spiritually preparing for the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus by celebrating Advent, simultaneously getting our souls ready for His coming as a child and his eventual return in glory when the Kingdom of God has fully come. While the merchants of the world look to Christmas every year for financial salvation, we Christians look to Jesus as God’s gift to all of humanity. As the saying goes, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Jesus comes to us at Christmas to make everything new for us, as we respond with “abundant joy and great rejoicing” to quote tonight’s First Reading.
       Who is Jesus? People inside and outside Christianity have been trying to figure that out since he arrived as a baby somewhere around the year four to six B-C.  Our First Reading gives us some hints: “Wonderful, Counselor, Prince of Peace.” Jesus is all of that, and more.  But as important as Jesus is to us personally, and to all of humanity, the only extensive record of the life of Jesus is found in the four canonical gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, supplemented by non-canonical sources, and a very few Non-Christian records like the Jewish Antiquities of Flavius Josephus.
More likely than not, the historical Jesus did likely exist. All of these sources, taken together, tell us what Jesus did and what Jesus said, but they do not establish definitively who Jesus is. I use the present tense, because Jesus continues to live among us. His Resurrection was not a mere resuscitation, but a proclamation that His death did not extinguish Him. His permanent existence as God’s word began as God began, with no chronological time of beginning, and like God, Jesus will never end. Christmas celebrates the gift of God’s word to humanity as humanity. That is why we are here tonight celebrating His human birth, and not commemorating someone who was, but is no longer.
So what makes Jesus so special? Some refer to Jesus as a wisdom teacher, someone who gave us a great deal of practical advice to have a good life. He is that, certainly. Others refer to Jesus as “the Messiah”, and/or as a successor to the Jewish King David. Many view Jesus as someone who will ultimately judgehumanity. Still others call Jesus “Savior,” someone who came to save humanity. There’s a fair amount of debate about how Jesus did that, whether by his death or his teaching, and whether than saving is an ongoing process.  There’s also ongoing debate over whoJesus saves. Does Jesus save only good people, only the baptized, only those who lived good lives, or simply everyone? And from what does Jesus save us? From hell after death? From the miseries in our lives, like illnesses, broken relationships, and other misfortunes? I say all of the foregoing, and more.  I don’t really know all the things from which Jesus saves us, or exactly how Jesus does that. There is so much about Jesus that will always remain as a mystery for ongoing discovery.
 And despite the Council of Chalcedon which supposedly settled the issue in four-fifty-one AD, we also hear ongoing debate over whether Jesus is human or divine. Without going into a lot of detail, the answer is: both.
The dual nature of Jesus should get us to think of Jesus as a sacrament, in and of himself. The shorthand definition of “sacrament” is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Jesus is certainly that. Jesus is human, Jesus is holy. Jesus is the sacrament of God, the physical revelation of God, and it is that physical revelation that we celebrate here tonight. But Jesus, like all sacraments, is more than simple physical existence, and that is why Jesus does not fall into an easily definable identity. The Greek word for “sacrament” is “musterion”, which also means “mystery.” What is a mystery is something ultimately unknowable, not capable of precise definition. And that’s exactly what Jesus is for me, ultimately unknowable, definitely not capable of being precisely defined. I am convinced of that more and more every day, as I constantly read books about Jesus and find myself discovering more and more about Jesus every day that I did not know previously. I don’t think I, or anyone else, will ever know all that there is to know about Jesus, who unceasingly continues to excite and fascinate my heart, mind and soul.
That ultimately unknowable aspect of Jesus is why Jesus matters. The better we get to know Jesus, the more valuable Jesus becomes to us. If we knew everything there is to know about Jesus, we could simply forget about Him after we knew everything about Him, and move on with our lives, leaving Jesus behind. Unfortunately, there are some people who’ve done exactly that, both outside and inside the church. Some are unchurched, meaning those who’ve never been to church in their entire life. Many of them are atheists and agnostics.  Others are what I call de-churched, those who were raised in a church, but left church behind as they grew older.  There are lots of those folks, and their number increases daily. Their existence presents a challenge for the Church, as people no longer attend Mass as an obligation based on fear of damnation, but as something that they want to do because they get something out of it.  The church today competes with the many other options people have on Sundays to allocate their time. The challenge I face every week as a pastor is, “how do I make Sunday morning a more worthwhile option than the other choices people have?” I try my best, but it’s not easy!
But there is another large group of people who’ve cut themselves off from Jesus, and that group does go to church, often every Sunday. That group is the know-it-alls, who think they know everything about Jesus, those who’ve put Jesus in their own little box, and use Jesus for their own purposes, often using Jesus as a tool, or even as a weapon, to achieve political and economic goals that benefit themselves. To invoke Jesus to support gun rights, capitalism, military buildups, invasions, mass incarceration, racism, homophobia, and sexism, illustrates the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of much of today’s religious establishment.  People who do that have obviously never read the Gospel of Jesus, or do not take it seriously, and are notoriously close-minded to new information.
Reducing Jesus to a neat, simple little definition, no matter who does it, diminishes the importance of Jesus, because it reduces Jesus as mystery. The very mystery of Jesus is what makes Jesus sacred, that which makes Jesus holy, that which makes Jesus a sacrament, and therefore significant to us. While our own experience as human persons may be neatly circumscribed in many circumstances, Jesus is different. Jesus is infinite. Jesus cannot be reduced to anything. Jesus is too vast. Jesus knows no limits. Jesus was born in the humble circumstances of a manger, the feeding place of animals. Yet His origin did not limit or define him.
That is because Jesus by His very nature is not someone to be defined, but someone to be experienced. The true experience of Jesus to us cannot be found in books. It cannot even be found in the Bible itself. It cannot be found in the Church. The ways in which we do so are infinite, both in church and in the world. We, of course, experience Jesus at Mass, in His Body and Blood, when receiving Holy Communion, when we hear about Jesus in the readings, when we pass the peace, and when we pray intercessions. But we also experience Jesus in a more general sense as a Church community. Jesus is the incentive that stimulates our coming to be with one another, and it is Jesus that holds us together and keeps us going as an organization.  Our love of Jesus is why we do things for the Church, like being musicians, readers, altar servers, and coffee hour hosts, and all the other things that makes church possible. Our love of Jesus is also why we do community outreach, like bringing food for hungry people and getting involved in other community activities to live out who we are as Christians.
At Christmas, Jesus is there to call us away from “godless ways and worldly desires’, the phrase used in today’s Second Reading. What are “godless ways and worldly desires”? God created all humanity in God’s image, yet sometimes we treat other people as if they were created in the image of the Evil One. Listen to the rhetoric in our political system.  Much of it demeans other people. Its usual goal is directed towards maintaining the power of one group or another.  To demean other people, to focus one’s life on obtaining and keeping power, is both godless and worldly. It denies the status of others as children of God and is directed solely towards maintaining one’s grip on one’s little corner of the material world. When we build up, rather than tear down, other people, we experience our own lives as God-filled, rather than godless.
And when we turn on television, we experience a medium that now piggy-backs two to three minutes of commercials at a time, for no other purpose than to stimulate whatever appetite we may have for cars, garage doors, beds, sheets, food, and clothes, but never any appetite for God, or anything spiritual. When we take the time to spiritually nurture ourselves rather than chase money and material goods, we move beyond the desire for material things, and we experience God both in our souls and our lives.
The only way to get off the godless and worldly track is to experience the reality of Jesus. After Mary and Joseph, the first people to experience Jesus, according to today’s Gospel, were the angels and shepherds. They reacted with joy, which tells us something about what they were feeling and experiencing. As we worship here tonight, we will experience some of that feeling, and that feeling will likely be with us at least through Christmas night. But what feelings will we have on Tuesday morning, December 26th? Will we go back to a purely secular life without God, focused on worldly concerns? Or will we, in the words of the Second Reading, live “temperately, justly, and devoutly”? As you go back to the secular world, remember the experience of Jesus you felt at Christmas, that sense of awe and wonderment. Keep it going. How? Pray, always. Come to Mass. Read scripture. Those things will keep you centered on Jesus.
But it also means experiencing Jesus in a very tangible fashion, in ways that do not even involve mentioning His name. Aim to make your experience with Jesus permeate everything you do, all of your relationships with others, be it your intimate partner, your co-workers, your friends, even strangers. That means forgiving mistakes and insults. It is being a servant. It is being like God, who anticipates what we need before we ask. It is being like the restaurant server who sees a diner with an empty water glass and fills it before being asked. It means speaking up when you see injustice. It means civilized mediation of conflicts instead of lawsuits. In doing all of that, we are experiencing Jesus becoming a permanent part of who we are as individuals and as a society. When we experience Jesus as we go about our lives, we become a community of disciples, preaching Gospel with actions, not just words. When you experience Jesus, He will be with you to guide you, strengthen you, and give you assurance to endure suffering.
The song that began the prelude to our service tonight was, “King Jesus hath a garden full of divers flowers.” It is my favorite Christmas song, because it reminds me of the diversity of humanity, and it is that diversity that makes humanity beautiful. We can expect to encounter Jesus in the entire diversity of humanity, not just in people like us, and to remind us that there is no place for bigotry or prejudice for Christians.
Try to see the face of Jesus in every person you meet. To do that, you must allow Jesus to be part of who you are.  As you leave here tonight, be like Mary. Ponder Jesus in your heart, and keep Him there! AMEN.