A Christmas Homily at Midnight Mass, 2010
Ateneo de Naga University Church of Christ the King
There is a very, very funny video of Fr. Art Borja on YouTube which some of you may have seen. It is a total spoof of Christmas sentimentality rendered by the deadpan Fr. Art who has been gifted with a genuinely beautiful voice. Hailing from Cagayan de Oro, he also has been gifted with the incredible ability to ape the Cebuano accent in English in the funniest of ways. Putting his remarkable looks, his faux-operatic voice and his accent together in his Christmas videos on YouTube, he can double you over in laughter. He’s been doing it for years, initially during for-Jesuits-only Christmas gatherings, but now for the globe, with hundreds of thousands of delighted hits, through the magic of the internet. I was tempted to try to imitate Fr. Art, but I will spare you that, and just say that what was yesteryear’s rendition of “Selvir Bills, Selvir Bills” this year became, “Em drimen ob a whit Chresmas!” The surprise of surprise in this year’s production was his partner, melding in from a cold and freezing location in the U.S., former US Ambassador to the Philippines, Kristie Kenney herself, singing, “I’m dreaming of a warm Christmas” and wishing us all in the most authentic of American accents, “Maligayang Pasko sa Inyong Lahat!” I can do a similar take: “Maogmang Pasko sa indo gabos!”
The romantic notion of the white Chistmas without the biting cold, or of the warmth of the Paskong Pinoy without the humid heat – whatever it is, wherever you are, whether advantageous or disadvantageous for the season, this is the day, this is the hour, for special celebration. It is wonderful that so many of you are here, from our neighborhood, from the different municipalities around Naga, from Manila, from Bacolod, and even from the Hong Kong, Singapore, China, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, coming home on Christmas to the Ateneo de Naga, coming home on Christmas to family, loved ones and friends. Christmas, whether white or warm, with or without the litson, with or without hot chocolate and suman, is about family, is about loved ones, is about coming home – it’s about friendship and love. That’s why we’re here. That’s why my sisters are here. That’s why you’re here. So that together we can thank God for love in our lives, for love in our homes, for love on our tables, in our living- and bedrooms, in our workplaces, for love in our giving, in our way of living, in the way our lives are unfolding. For, God is love. We come together in the House of Christ the King, around his manger, around his altar, beneath his Crucifix, where the central figure is Jesus, on the wood of the Cross, on the wood of the Altar, on the wood of the manger, expressing at one and the same time, now and forever, through Sacrifice, Offering and his birth today: Emmanuel, Love is with us. Emmanuel. God is with us. Emmanuel. We are with God in love.
God is with us – even though we sometimes feel so abandoned, so misunderstood. God is with us, even though now and then, we really mess up. God is with us, even though we can sometimes be so unkind, so mean, so self-centered. God is with us – even in our moments of deepest despair. God is with us consoling, correcting, liberating, loving, providing us a ray of light, a spark of hope.
But God is with us also in our moments of great elation, when his presence is dazzling and overpowering: in the kiss of a loved one, in the birth of a child, in the genuine surprise of a friend’s thoughtfulness, in the success that comes after much difficult work, in the difficult decision that is costly but morally impelled, in the still moment of deep interiority when we know we are not alone. God is with us in the power of the great typhoon, but also in the gentleness of the cool morning breeze.
The account of the First Christmas according to St. Matthew is filled with great mystery, as is life, and filled with great ambiguity and uncertainty, as is life. Like so much that happens to us which we really don’t quite understand, but brings us rather mysteriously to a deeper experience of our truth and mission, the story of the man, Joseph, of the royal house and lineage of David, who is betrothed to Mary, unfolds. He is engaged to marry Mary. But suddenly one day he finds her pregnant. Clearly, in the Gospel account there is much drama between the lines. Think of the conflicting emotions that grip Joseph. He loves Mary, loves her deeply, and has agreed publicly to marry her. But now she is with Child. And the Child is not his. What goes through his mind, as he looks upon Mary and tries to understand? Mary is such a good person, but what is he now to think? Was she unfaithful? Is she now bearing the child of another man? As irreverent as this question may seem, it is the most natural question to ask under the circumstances. The punishment for such infidelity in Jewish law is death by stoning. Joseph is racked by doubt, disappointment and fear. Doubt, because he cannot believe what seems obvious. Disappointment, because how can Mary have done this? Fear, because he is a just man, faithful to the law, and knows the legal consequences of infidelity. Fear, because he did not want his love for Mary disrespected, spurned and sullied, and because of what he might need to do to recover his honor. In what must have been an excruciating struggle, he decides simply to quietly repudiate the engagement, to call off the marriage. If Mary has made a mistake, in his love for her, he does not want her publicly shamed. If she has made a mistake that has compromised her, she is already suffering, and he does not want to heap more suffering on the woman he truly loves. If she erred, how, for God’s sake, could she have erred in this manner!
But in a dream, the divine plan of salvation is unfolded. He is not to fear. The Child is conceived through the Holy Spirit. His Mary, a virgin, is to give birth. Hers shall be a son, and he is to be called “Emmanuel – God with us.”
What might have happened if Joseph had feared? Or had acted rashly in fear? Or, for that matter, what might have happened if Mary for fear of what the neighbors or her relatives or her friends would have said when she be found pregnant, had refused her “Fiat” and said, “I really don’t want any part in this hassle! I don’t want to have anything to do with it!” What would have happened if she’d said, “No, I don’t want to hurt Joseph, I don’t want to dishoner this good man who has shown me so much love. If Joseph had feared, if Mary had refused her “Fiat,” if they had both remained in their comfort zones and everyday ordinariness, the divine drama would not have unfolded.
But the drama did unfold, divinity did insinuate itself in our human history, driven by the Father’s love. And that’s what we celebrate tonight. His Word is spoken. It is spoken to us. His Word is made flesh, born, lain in a manger…. and called, “Emmanuel – God with us” – so that in our loneliest moments, we not be alone. “God with us” so that in our darkest moments of shame, we not be unconsoled, and there be for us, even there, healing and redemption. “God with us” so that when confused and depressed, he can raise us up and show us the way. “God with us” – so that in our happiest moments, we can sing, sing out to our God, and dance in the euphoria of being blessed beyond deserving.
So as a Christmas community tonight, leaving the soppy sentimentality of the Season behind, we look at the wood of our Cross, look at the wood of our Altar, and look at the wood of our manger. What is common to these three realities is not wood. It is Jesus: the King, the Offering, the Babe in the Manger. Today, we pray that Jesus be returned to the hardened wood of our hearts, that these hearts be softened into hearts of flesh, so that we might be returned to the wondrous mystery of this great event. As we said, Christmas is about coming home. It is about family and friends. It is about brothers and sisters, about you and me today, gathered together in celebration. Most of all, it is about whom we hope and pray is today born anew in our hearts: Emmanuel – God with us. Love with us. We with God in love.