[Homily: Christmas Midnight Mass, ADDU Chapel of the Assumption, 2017]
Finally this long-awaited day has come. The Church begins its official wait for this day from the first day of Advent, four weeks ago. But the Philippines bypasses Advent and begins the Christmas season four months ago, with the first day of the “–ber months”. It begins inevitably with radios airing Christmas carols and televisions transforming their sets with the shapes and colors of Christmas. Broadcasters, store attendants and waiters wear the red caps of Santa’s elves or the branched antlers of Santa’s reindeer. Inevitably these days, the voices of Joe Mari Chan and his daughter, Lisa, herald the spirit of the Season: “Whenever I see girls and boys selling lanterns on the street, I remember the Child in the manger as he sleeps…” It’s an important thing to remember. For “The Child in the manger as He sleeps” is what many people forget as Christmas decorations are put up, gifts for loved ones and friends are lovingly prepared, and preparations are made for the Noche Buena after this Midnight Mass and the special meal tomorrow that brings the family and friends together on Christmas Day. Sadly, the commercial activities that surround the quintessentially Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, have more and more removed the Child in the Manger from their Christmas decorations – and Christmas. Traditionally the birth of Christ is recalled by the Belen, with its figurines of the Baby Jesus in the manger cared for by Mary and Joseph, admired by the shepherds from the field, and worshipped by the Three Kings, along with the ox, the donkey, the sheep and the Magi’s three camels. The Belen was set under a Christmas tree – in Germany, a Tannenbaum, a fir tree – lit by live candles with a star atop it. The Christmas tree with its crowning star – which became our Parol – and the trees’ lights were to recall how the star led the magi and all of us to the newborn Messiah. The first Christmas gift is the Father’s gift to us of the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lain in a manger. The first Christmas carol is the song of the angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo – Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.”
In some of the malls, the Christ Child, the Father’s Gift to us all at Christmas, is replaced by a giant multi-colored empty box wrapped in swaddling ribbons, the lone Christmas tree replaced by a forest of sparkling trees decorated by colorful balls, tinsel, teddy bears and candy cane, and the unique star replaced by whole constellations of flickering stars intended to bedazzle shoppers and keep them mesmerized in the right spirit of Christmas as their wallets and bank accounts are emptied and bountiful yuletide profits are achieved.
Recently, I participated in a Kris Kringle exchange. When I asked, no one knew the meaning nor the origin of “Kris Kringle.” The Internet said different things. Most said Kris Kringle is Santa Claus. One video said, insightfully, Kris Kringle is “the son of Mr. Kringle.” No one was able to connect to the Christ Child, in German, Christus Kind, or the little Christ Child, Christus Kindlein (“Kindlein,” the diminutive of Kind, Child) or Christus Kindl (“Kindl,” another diminutive of Kind, Child) or Kris Kindl. Kris Kringle is the Christ Child!
I guess, part of the fun of Christmas today has to be to smile and try to decipher the decorations and relate them to the traditional faith-based symbols celebrating the Birth of our Lord. When we hang a sparkling parol outside of our house, or give our loved one a gift at Christmas, we are not just repeating an empty Christmas tradition, correct? Recently, as I wanted to see the movie Coco that people around me were talking about, I watched an unusually long 21-minute bonus cartoon by Disney’s Pixar entitled “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” which, I guess, in a secular world tries to recover the spirit of Christmas. The Queen and princess of the northern European realm have prepared a wonderful Christmas banquet for their village, but no one comes. Each must go home, they explain, to fulfill “their Christmas tradition.” Every family has a different Christmas tradition, for some a festive meal, for others a special game, for others a happy dance. When the Queen and princess in their lonely castle notice sadly that they have no “tradition” with which to celebrate Christmas, Olaf the Snowman goes off generously into the village, then into the forests and mountains, to find a Christmas tradition for them. His arduous adventure brings him much suffering, but it ends in the discovery that he, Olaf, is the royal family’s Christmas tradition. The discovery ends the cartoon on a happy note. But the ultimate message of the cartoon is: Be happy at Christmas with your family tradition, whatever it is, and may you never be without a family tradition at Christmas, whatever it is, even if it is Olaf the Snowman, whoever he is, or Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, whatever he is, or Santa Claus on Olaf’s reindeer, whoever Santa is, or a striped red-and-white peppermint stick, whatever that means, or a striped Apple with a chunk of it bitten off by Steve Jobs on a gift, the Giant of Technology whose remarkable life – complicated – argues for our need of a Messiah.
The Good News of today is that the Messiah is born. The world sets it aside as
fake news, and conjures a commercial culture without the Belen, or “a Christmas tradition” without the Christ Child. If we intentionally push Christ out of the malls because not all believe in Christ and Christmas commercialism is for all, if we push the memory of the Christ Child born in embarrassing poverty out of Christmas because it offends against the show-off materialism of the Season, if we push Jesus Christ out of our enjoyment of our Christmas merriment, and put together a grand birthday party but creatively conspire to keep the birthday Celebrant out of it, it’s only because we’ve found our ways of being Christians without Christ, or of being well-bred, educated, technocratic humans without the Messiah.
But the bad news is no matter how much the media heralds “Change is coming, change is here!” and no matter how much we need to believe that and pray, “I believe, help my unbelief!” we come to learn that our power to change what we need to change and improve the quality of life for our people is severely limited: our typhoons remain deadly, our rivers overflow, our houses get flooded, our malls burn down. Our police force is flawed, our military is imperfect, our officials corrupt, our collaborators inept, yet what we want to change in our humanity is stubborn and pernicious. We love our old ways, we love our old dilapidated jeepneys, we love our old dependencies, we love our old quarrels. We love humanity, but that person who wronged me – imagine, in my own family! – I refuse to forgive, and for him or her my cold passive aggression totally appropriate and justified! We also learn that despite our breeding, education and positions of influence, much of what is flawed and imperfect and corrupt and inept and unforgiving is in us. Things don’t change, because we refuse change. We are happy with our addictions, and profit from our corruption, and content always to push the blame on others. We can celebrate Christmas without the Christ Child because that baby born of a Virgin is embarrassing, and because we have come to the conviction that life is possible without a Messiah, and that what is wrong, unjust and life-sapping in our society can be righted with a build!-build!-build! economy, a multi-trillion budget, Federalism and martial law.
Of course, we know, that’s not true. That’s fake news. And that’s what we must consider as we remember “the Child in the manger as he sleeps.” There is no Christmas that is possible without the Christ Child, and no Christmas that can be meaningful without personal insight into our need for a Messiah.
So, Christmas is here. Jesus is born: Emmanuel, God with us. With Joe Mari and Lisa, “Let’s sing Merry Christmas and a happy holiday! This Season may we never forget the love we have for Jesus. Let him be the one to guide us as another new year starts. And may the Spirit of Christmas be always in our hearts!”