Homily delivered on 12/25/23 at St. Michael’s Abbey.
Just a few short hours ago, we heard in the Gospel the story of the first time earth resounded with the angelic song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace…” Every year we return to Bethlehem; every year we come back to the cave, we enter the stable; in the cold night, in the cold day we come together as families, and we quietly and joyfully gather around a manger to sing to a Child.
Why do we need Christmas? What is the interior compulsion that brooks no inconvenience to return, perhaps from great distances, so that as families and loved ones we can celebrate a birthday so long passed? This is not the question of why the Child deserves it, but rather why do we need to do this? What is it in us that cannot count the year as complete unless as its dregs pour out we put a halt to regular business and come to church?
We heard last night Isaiah sing in prophecy not once but twice, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, for every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames. For a Child is born to us, a Son is given us; upon His shoulder dominion rests. They name Him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father Forever, Prince of Peace.”
Peace. Peace is what we want, that deep and inescapable longing of our hearts. And yet it ever eludes us. And we elude it. God willing, it didn’t happen in our own families, but who doesn’t hear of fights and friction already tainting the joy of the season as relatives arrive? Can’t we just have one Christmas in peace? And this is just one moment of the year inside our homes. We are constantly peppered with news throughout the whole world of violence and crime and sadness.
Nothing has changed since that first Christmas in Bethlehem. Emperor Augustus had just suppressed an uprising in what is now Hungary. And this after a century of civil wars in the Roman Republic, in which time frame the Roman General Pompey the Great subdued the Jews, captured Jerusalem, and himself entered into the Holy of Holies. Herod the Great, vassal king to Rome, was known for eliminating political intrigue within his family by eliminating his family. And as we see the caravan wandering from the east bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we also hear a murderous storm cloud rumbling over Jerusalem.
The tragedy of death and war in the Holy Land is still with us. On October 7, the newest wave of violence erupted again. Two of our priests were there on pilgrimage at the time, who thanks be to God returned safe and sound several tense days later. The loss of life may not always hit the mainstream media, but even into this month Christians are victims without a voice. Not ten days ago, a sniper in the Israeli Defense Force shot a mother and daughter within the walls of Holy Family Parish, and an IDF tank targeted a Missionaries of Charity convent where the sisters tended to over fifty disabled persons. And yet today our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, they too are celebrating Christmas, praying for peace.
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the Mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
While Isaiah was singing in the eighth century B.C. about the Prince of Peace, on the other side of Jerusalem harmonizing with him was the prophet Micah: “Now His greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; He shall be peace.” The Church is clear in its teaching that “peace is not the mere absence of war. Peace on earth, born of love for one’s neighbor, is the sign and effect of the peace of Christ that flows from God the Father. In His own person the incarnate Son, the Prince of Peace, reconciled all men to God through His death on the cross.”
We need Christmas because we need peace. Even the pagan poet Virgil at the time of Augustus referred to a world tottering—lands and broad sea and the firmament above, all wavering and about to crash. Our hearts are crippled by our own sins, the earth is rent by destruction and war, we walk in darkness and dwell in a land of gloom, and we need at least one place on earth where we can go and shed our malice and look upon something—Someone—so pure and so good that He makes everyone who draws near to be good, to want to be good. We need Someone to give stability to our collapsing world and falling hearts. We need Someone to silence our whispering doubts and gnawing fears, to end our wars, to give us hope. Because we need peace, we need Jesus Christ. We need the Child laid in a manger. We need His Virgin Mother, His silent foster-father. We need peace. We need peace.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.