December 24, 2021 – 7:00 PM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 9:1-6 | Psalm 96:1-3;11-13
Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” Those were the words an angel proclaimed to announce to shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night in the area where tonight’s Gospel tells us Jesus was born.
Pervasive fear was common where Jesus was born. The Jewish people in that area were afraid of both the Roman Empire and the Idumaen kings. They thought that God had forgotten them. Where there is fear, there is despair and slavery. Even if there is no actual captivity, when people are afraid, they become prisoners to their fears, chained in despair and hopelessness.
Yet in contrast to the surrounding social and political circumstances of first-Century Palestine, the angel’s announcement resonated with the joyous feelings that families experience when a child is born. And during the Christmas Season, even strangers greet one another with, “Merry Christmas.” We’re supposed to be happy at this time of year, happy to be with friends and family, and happy to give and receive gifts.
So it’s no surprise that one of the more popular Christmas Carols is, “Joy To the World.” Joy is part and parcel of Christianity. If you come to Mass tomorrow morning, you will hear it sung. For Christians, the joy of Christmas is more than a trite philosophical axiom or commercial slogan.
The late Eastern Orthodox Priest, Alexander Schmemen, wrote about joy in his journal. He said,
“I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy when we forget that God created the world and saved it. Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything—faith and vision. Where there is no joy, Christianity becomes fear and therefore torture.”
Those of you who pray the Rosary are familiar with the Joyful Mysteries of Our Lady, one of which is the Nativity of our Lord Jesus, otherwise known as Christmas. The other four are: the Annunciation to Mary of his birth; the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist; the Presentation of Jesus to Simeon the Priest; and the finding of Jesus in the Temple when he was believed to be about twelve years of age.
Mary was filled with joy on all those occasions. That she rejoiced on those occasions is not surprising. Experiencing joy is part of being human. Even though Mary is due elevated respect for birthing Jesus, Mary was human, just like us. Mary bestowed the human component upon Jesus to complete him as inseparably truly human and truly divine. Mary’s joy made Jesus possible for humanity. The joys of Mary do, in fact, matter for all of us.
Although we are all supposed to share Mary’s joy at this time of year, many people right now are feeling more fearful than joyous. That is sad. What is most distressing is the sheer number of people more preoccupied with fearing Covid than the joys of Christmas. Some people are afraid to gather with family and friends. Many are even afraid to go to church. Many churches, including ours, are struggling to build back worship attendance. Here, although we are ahead of last year’s attendance, we still have a long ways to go.
The Covid news becomes more and more depressing day by day. We hear and see a common storyline characterized by repeated iterations of a common theme that goes something like this: “The sky is falling. We don’t know what’s ahead. So let’s all be very cautious.” This attitude is most poignantly displayed in the worldwide decisions of public officials reacting by imposing restrictions based more on what they don’t know than what they know. Telling people how to live based on speculation is nothing but harmful to collective mental health and that of individuals.
Yes, to fear the unknown future is a natural human emotion. We don’t know what’s ahead of us for our health, in our businesses, and for our families. We fear danger. We fear storms, fires, earthquakes, and other disasters. But the most problematic fears are the ones humanity creates for itself. Those are the fears that kill people.
The fact is, fear obstructs joy. Because joy is so important to being a Christian, the mission of the church must identify, confront, and eliminate fear.
Why? Fear kills.
Even before the Covid pandemic, we lived in a country where fear permeated many people’s lives, with disastrous, often fatal, consequences for us as individuals and for us as a country.
Here are some examples of lethal fear.
Take immigration. People are scared an immigrant will take their job. The fact is, however, that fear is unfounded. Immigrants don’t take jobs from citizens. They do jobs that citizens don’t want, like cleaning hotel rooms, washing dishes, or harvesting agricultural products. They fill jobs that our school system fails to provide enough qualified graduates, like software engineers, hardware technicians, research scientists, and health care providers. Opposition to immigration is not based on economics, but fear of cultural change. That is what drives fear of those who are of different races or nationalities. And too often, fear of immigrants has led to fatalities. Look at the number of people killed by those whose parting words to their victims have been, “Go back to Asia” or “Go back to Africa.” Fear kills.
Fear is also behind sexism. Many men can’t handle a relationship like the one I have with Deacon Sharon, one with a woman in charge. Many men fear female bosses and see women who can do something better than they do as threatening their ego and their existence. Fear of empowered women has sometimes led to domestic violence. Look at the number of women killed by men who could not deal with a woman who wanted to run her own life. Fear kills.
And nothing but fear drives the ongoing prejudice against same-sex relationships. Homophobia is the fear, hatred, discomfort with, or mistrust of people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Homophobia is institutionalized through discrimination from religious institutions like conservative Christians, businesses run by conservatives, or governments like those in Africa who have criminalized same-sex relationships. In places where homophobia rules, same-sex couples are not allowed to marry or even be together; that can get them fired from their jobs just for being who they are, or they are not allowed into the housing of their choosing.
Homophobia in its most extreme forms causes bullying, abuse, and sometimes violence against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. This year has already seen at least fifty gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. These victims, like all of us, are loving partners, parents, family members, friends, and community members. They worked, went to school, and attended houses of worship. They were real people — people who did not deserve to have their lives taken from them. Fear kills.
Homophobia is still with us, even in churches. This past weekend, Deacon Sharon and I attended a social event composed primarily of clergy where we heard about a gay priest scared of disclosing to his congregation that he had a husband because the congregation might fire him. His gutless bishop refused to step in and take action. I assure you, that will never happen here. We are an affirmatively welcoming church and will remain that way. And by the way, our bishop has, in fact, married same-sex couples.
The Jesus whose birth we celebrate tonight came to interdict human fear on all levels. As the often heard slogan says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Jesus represents the opposite of fears that result in death. The message of Jesus is to put our fears aside and trust in God.
Jesus gives us freedom from fear through the peace he gives us.
Jesus left us his peace, not the peace the world gives us.
As Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid.” Jesus sends us out to build up the Kingdom of God as sheep in the midst of wolves, expecting us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves and not to worry about what will happen to us. Jesus tells us to expect persecution for who we are but reminds us not to fear and instead trust in God.
Recall that when Jesus was walking on water in the midst of a storm that roiled the boat containing his disciples, his words to them in the Gospel of Mark were, “Rejoice, it is I. Do not be afraid.” With all that is going on in today’s world, those words greatly challenge all of us to be a force for good.
For many of us, our hopes of the pandemic being a short disruption to our normal lives have surrendered to a prolonged season of weariness, anxiety, and exhaustion. Even the simplest of things now present a challenge and threaten to steal our joy and trust in the goodness of God. But we cannot give in to that, no matter how earnestly the “public health officials” urge us to live in fear of an unknown future. Unfortunately, many churches have been reinforcing those negative messages. Our answer, however, to the vicissitudes of life must be what it has always been: turn to Jesus. Not turn to the church. Not turn to the Bible. And definitely, not turn to governments. Just simply turn to Jesus.
We cannot allow the pandemic to steal the joy of the Incarnation. If we are to experience the joy of Christmas, our focus must be on Jesus.
Jesus is with us in the storm.
Jesus is strong when we are weak.
Jesus is clear-eyed when all is shrouded by clouds.
Jesus longs for us to cry out to him when the winds of life are against us.
When we feel afraid, God is always near. No matter how afraid we are, we can remember to ask God for help. God can turn fear into joy.
The pandemic has shaken the universe we know in our immediate lives. Nothing has remained the same. But we can live in another realm as well, wrapped in the garment of our baptismal covenant. As we wander between fear and joy, between things above and things below, we gather for worship at Christmas and with our friends and family members at our Christmas trees. The joy of Christmas is, by nature, for sharing. To replace that joy with solitude driven by fear is dangerous and insane. God calls us to share presents, to share a meal, and to share ourselves with one another.
Surrendering to fear is not an option for Christians. We cannot allow politicians to utilize and encourage fear of immigrants, women, and L-G-B-T persons. They do that for selfish, evil reasons, the most morally despicable of which is getting elected. For example, in their quest to gain or hold power, the fear-inciting rhetoric of politicians has encouraged many Christians not to serve and embrace refugees, which is as close a thing to being Christ-like and following Jesus’ teaching as you could get.
The angel who announced the birth of Jesus got it right. Fear not, Jesus is born! The message of Christmas should drive fear away. The message is that God sent his Son to be born here, to become one of us, to feel our pain and sorrows. This message should drive fear away. This is not a declaration that our current realities will change. Rather, it proclaims a new kingdom and a new reality. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of love and joy that challenges the kingdoms of the fear that dominate our world today.
You probably know the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The first verse ends with the words, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met with thee tonight.” The message of the Angel announcing the birth of Jesus speaks directly to that.
The words of the angel are what will transform our hopes and fears into the joy of Christmas.
The words of the angel tell us that fear is replaced with the joy of the Gospel.
The opposite of fear is not security, but joy! Joy, not security, replaces fear. The promise of Christmas is not that of security, wealth, or comfort, but the joy of the Gospel!
The joy of the Gospel is knowing that God dealt with our sins and failures.
The joy of the Gospel is the joy of realizing that God has remembered his covenant; of realizing that God did not forget us.
The joy of the Gospel is knowing that the baby of Bethlehem is the prince of peace.
The joy of the Gospel is what will, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, speak of a Messiah who, “with righteousness shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”
In the joy of the Gospel, the joy of Christmas is front and center.
The joy of Christmas is not a passive or naïve joy.
The Joy of Christmas is active and transformative.
The joy of Christmas should transform our world and reality and cause us to be agents of transformation and change.
The shepherds received this joyful news of Jesus’ birth. They went to Bethlehem and met Jesus and the Holy Family, and then returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them”. Today we are invited to do the same.
Because Jesus is born, we are now free to love, serve, and worship him.
Because Jesus is born, we are no longer slaves to our fears.
Because Jesus was born, we “fear not,” and with joy we love and serve the world.
And when we serve with joy, we are liberated from fear. Only then, are we able to fully love and embrace God and others. AMEN.