Christmas: The God Who Comes Close

I presided and preached at my Jesuit community’s Christmas celebration today. The readings were from the Mass During the Day: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Hebrews 1: 1-6; John 1: 1-18.

“How beautiful are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news.”  So says Isaiah. He goes on: “They shout for joy for they see directly, before their eyes, the Lord….”  We are filled with joy because we don’t see before our eyes “prophets” through whom “God spoke in partial and various ways,” as the second reading says. We see “directly, before our eyes,” because God has been made manifest, “the Word became flesh.”

In his Midnight Mass Homily of 2008, Pope Benedict spoke about our first experience of God being one of distance. God is so far above and beyond us. But then, referring to a medieval theologian by the name of William of St. Thierry, he said: “God became a child. He made himself dependent and weak, in need of our love. Now—this God who has become a child says to us—you can no longer fear me, you can only love me.” 

This is the good news, the Gospel of Joy!

God became lowly in order to raise us up.  God became human in order to make us divine, as our opening prayer said: “O God, … grant we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

This is the miracle of the Incarnation: God, “the Word became flesh.”  This is the miracle of Baptism that John writes about in the Gospel.  Through Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we have been given the “power to become children of God,” to be “born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.”  This is the miracle of the Eucharist. The Son of God became flesh in order to give his flesh for the life of the world. He makes that offering present in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and he unites his flesh to ours in a “Holy Communion.” 

This is “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Gospel of Joy.  As you know, that’s the title of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation in which I’m told the word “joy” appears in one form or another 110 times.

What is the reason, the source of this joy?

In section #164, speaking about catechesis, Pope Francis writes that on our lips “the first proclamation must ring out over and over.”  What is that proclamation? “Jesus Christ loves you. He gave his life to save you. And now he is living at your side every day to enlighten and free you.” 

In other words, God is close, very close to each of us. This knowledge is “first,” according to Pope Francis, because it is “principal.” It is most important. It is the foundation of our lives. He goes on to say that this proclamation is principal because it is “the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another….”

All are called to hold fast to this proclamation and to announce it.  But, quoting from Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation about priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope Francis writes: “For this reason too, ‘the priest—like every other member of the Church—ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized.’”  We priests need the Gospel of Joy, a deeper awareness that Jesus Christ loves us, gave his life for us, and is now living at our side every day.

As Jesuits we’ve been given a gift that helps us go deeper in this awareness. Through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, we don’t just think about how God has come close to us. We, as it were, “see directly.” Through the imagination and bringing the senses into our prayer, we experience the birth of Jesus. In this way the familiar stories and the high theology of the first chapter of John, do not remain here, in our heads, but enter our hearts where they can transform us.