MERRY CHRISTMAS! What joy to be able to say those blessed words after the continued anticipation of the Lord’s arrival throughout the Advent season. It is a special joy to be here on the river for a second year, a privilege not always granted to associate pastors, and to celebrate with so many people whom I have come to know and love. I’ve been reflecting lately on the many good things that have happened in this year and some of the things that were simply notable. For instance, at some point scraggly beards became all the rage this year, which I was happy happy happy to see. Sweet little Hannah Montana shocked the nation, which I was not so happy to see. For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church we elected a Jesuit as Pope and then he confused the whole world by promptly taking the name of the founder of the Franciscans! And, I think most notable, there was that one Sunday this year that my Sunday homily was under 10 minutes. (Don’t get your hopes up today…). These are just a few things that crossed my mind amidst the many things that I have seen God do in my life and in many of yours and I know that you can add many other good memories to that list. But I think one of the most important for all of us was the election of Pope Francis. While he has changed nothing of the teaching of the Church, he has brought to the papacy once more a vibrancy that we haven’t seen in a while and which is drawing many to him, the Church, and the Lord. That vibrancy isn’t just in his youthfulness; it is in his visible witness of love and joy. Love and joy are attractive and it’s beautiful to see so many people interested in the faith once more, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
In a similar vein, I am aware of the fact that we who are gathered here today come from different places – sometimes physically, but especially spiritually. Some of you showed up early and claimed your usual Sunday spot, some of you may be here for the first time in some months or even years, some of you may be here because it’s just what you do at Christmas, others because it’s a family obligation and the gumbo is held hostage until everyone attends Mass. Some of you may be here today because there is just something missing that you don’t put a finger on and you’ve looked elsewhere to no avail, so you figured you’ve give the Lord another try. Or maybe you just got caught in traffic and decided to pull over here and rest for a bit. We come with different things on our hearts and from different places, but the invitation to each and every one of us tonight is the same: encounter the Lord.
In his recent exhortation, Pope Francis wrote something that is especially apropos in this Christmas celebration. He said, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting Him encounter them. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” Each of us is invited to that encounter today, to meet the God who is love and who took on flesh to draw us closer to Him here and in eternity.
How, though, do we encounter this God? How do we open our hearts to Him? A few weeks ago we heard in the Gospel the question put to Jesus by the disciples of John the Baptist, “Are you the one or should we look for another?” and His response was essentially, ‘Open your eyes and ears. Look and listen and tell me what you see and hear.’ We’ve heard the Scriptures proclaimed, so let us pause to reflect on their meaning. If the Lord had not taken on our flesh, we would be damned. If the Lord had not been born to this life, we would not be able to taste eternal life. If the Lord had not ransomed us from sin, we would still be enslaved to it. If the Lord had not come to bring peace, joy and life, we would dwell in a state of constant misery. If the Lord had not given the gift of His grace, we would all be lost, wandering in the desert of this life. If the Lord had not come to us, we would have nothing. The good news, though, is that He has come. He has ransomed us from sin, given us His grace, filled us with His life, made us His brothers and sisters, and opened for us the way to gates of Heaven. He has saved us, is saving us, and we pray at the end will save us once and for all. It is that God, love itself, who comes to us in the crib, who offered His life on the cross, and comes to us day after day on this holy altar. Let us encounter Him here in this place, calling to mind His love for you. Not ‘you’ as a group but ‘you’ as an individual. He created each of us with His own hands and He knows us better than we know ourselves. It is for us to recognize that truth and to respond in love.
That’s the Gospel we rejoice in today, that God is with us - with me, with you - that He loves me and He loves you. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi, Saved in Hope, said these consoling words: “When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, He can help me.”
Our God is here. He has humbled Himself to encounter us and to be encountered by us; Emmanuel, God with us. May we also be with Him today, that He might fill us with His grace and draw ever more closely to the glory that is to come. Amen.