Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. December 24, 2020
Dear friends, sisters and brothers in the newborn Christ:
We celebrate this evening Jesus: the true Light of the world, shining in our darkness; the promise of hope to a world that had lost hope. Isaiah speaks of him as Emmanuel, a name that means “God is with us.” Yes, even in the dark night of this pandemic, even with our hospitals full and caseloads increasing and our gatherings restricted, Christ comes to be born anew, in the hearts and lives of all who are willing to receive him, to make space for the life and love he offers.
When he began his public mission, the adult Jesus proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor, new sight to the blind, release to prisoners; to announce a year of the Lord’s favour.” He came to fulfill that promise made long ago, again through Isaiah, that “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light!”
Writing to his parents at Christmas 1943 from the confinement of a Nazi prison cell, Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that for a Christian, no darkness can prevent the Light of Christ from coming to us:
“For a Christian, there is nothing peculiar about Christmas in a prison cell. I daresay it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison, than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to man, that God should come down to the very place which men usually avoid, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn – these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else.
For the prisoner, the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And that faith gives the prisoner a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space.”
For many of us, this pandemic has felt like a prison, one from which we have longed to escape. The rapid development of a vaccine, now being deployed to the most vulnerable among us – elderly residents of long-term care homes, and those who attend to them on the front lines – offers us a kind of hope, a promise of a better future. But is that sufficient? Is there not a deeper hope in our hearts and in our world that is waiting to emerge, beyond seeing the end of this pandemic? In a recent Advent meditation, Indiana Bishop Kevin Rhodes writes:
“We hope for a vaccine and an end to the pandemic, but this is not our greatest hope. Deep down, we still feel a longing for something greater, a longing for unending happiness, a longing for joy, peace, and love; in a word, we long for salvation, for a Savior. We long for God. Without God – the God who took human flesh in Jesus – we have no ultimate hope, and will not find the joy and peace we so deeply crave. Without Christ, we go through life as a journey toward death. With Christ, we go through life as a journey toward the fullness of life.”
Think of Mary and Joseph, travelling the long lonely road from Nazareth to Bethlehem: a hard, cold journey of 150 km, mostly on foot, with Mary heavily pregnant. Driven out onto the road, at a time of great vulnerability and danger, by economic and political decisions beyond their control.
Surely, they too must have been tempted to panic, to lose hope, when Mary's time to give birth came and no one would open the door to them. When Bethlehem went into lockdown and they were left stranded. How vulnerable they must have felt, with only each other, and God’s promise to somehow make things come right, to sustain them. Yet through the “Yes” that both Mary and Joseph said to God and his plan for their lives, even when they found it hard to understand and even harder to live, Jesus the Light came into our world.
A little-known Christmas carol, composed by the Jesuit Fr. John Foley, expresses for me the pathos of that night beautifully: “Winter Cold Night”. As he paints the portrait of that night, we see that like Mary and Joseph, we also dwell in that uncomfortable gap: between the minor key of this pandemic, and of all the associated dramas of human suffering it has awakened and accentuated, and the major key of the joy of the birth of Christ, coming anew to be our source of hope, peace, joy and love.
Dark, dark, the winter cold night, lu-lee-lay. Hope is hard to come by, lu-lee-lay. Hard, hard the journey tonight, lu-lee-lay. Star, guide, hope, hide our poor, winter cold night.
And on Earth peace, good will among men.Lean, lean, the livin' tonight, lu-lee-lay. Star seems darker sometimes, lu-lee-lay. Unto you is born this day a Savior. Pain, yes, in the bornin' tonight, lu-lee-lay. Star, guide, hope, hide our poor winter cold night.
It has been a hard year. Many of us have lost people who are dear to us, whether directly from Covid or from other causes, and have not had the opportunity to gather with friends and family to remember them, to celebrate them, to grieve their loss. Some of us have suffered financially; and almost all of us have felt the sadness of loneliness and isolation.
But just as angels proclaimed to the shepherds watching their flocks by night the coming of the Messiah, the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger, so too the Good News of the Birth of Christ is announced to us: right here, right now, in our dark pandemic-soaked night.
No virus, no government decree, no economic crisis, no lack of faith and hope on our part can prevent Christ, the Word made Flesh, from coming into our world. He is here, he has always been here, and he will always be here.
The question is: will we accept Christ, welcome Christ, make room for Christ in the dark and messy stables of our lives, our families, our world? We may have a hundred reasons to say that we are not ready, not worthy, not good enough to receive such an honoured guest. But if a dark, messy stable was good enough for the Word made Flesh two thousand years ago, why not now also? He comes to make his home among us now, just as we are, right where we are. None of us is worthy, but that does not matter. He chooses to come to us. We have only to open and welcome him. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.”
In a recent interview, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said something which I found very relevant to our situation:
“I think the problems and the sufferings of this year can help us focus on the true message of hope, of Christmas. What is it? It is God who comes to us. We will never be alone. Emmanuel: God with us. So there is a hope that we, that all of us, could live every moment, every day of our lives, at peace with God, at peace with our neighbours. Let us not postpone the good things that we could do now, little acts: a simple act of kindness, a small act of justice, a phone call, a smile, a remembrance, an expression of forgiveness, because you might not have another chance to do it…
I wish that people will have the strength, the hope, the faith and the joy to make the New Year brighter. We cannot simply wait for outside factors to change. Maybe they will not change in the way we would want. But we can change our outlook, and that will make the New Year brighter: in Christ we will find our hope, our solidarity, our joy.”
This is my prayer for all of us this Christmas, especially in the midst of our long, “winter cold night”: that Jesus the Light may come anew, as Warmth to our coldness, as Light to our darkness, as Presence to our loneliness, as Spring to our long pandemic-induced winter.
May the Good News of the Birth of Christ re-ignite that spark of hope and faith, of joy and love, within each of our hearts! And also, may we receive Christ not only in the secrecy of our hearts, but may we empowered to share that light – of faith and hope, of joy and love, of the promise of a springtime of new possibilities – to a world that so much needs it.
So from all of us at St. Monica’s, to all of you – whether here in Church in person, or following us from the comfort of your own homes – we wish you a peaceful, joy-filled, safe and happy Christmas.
And just remember:“Christmas Eve may find me, Watching Mass live-streamed, But we’ll be together next Christmas, When we’ve had our vaccine!”
Father Raymond Lafontaine, E.V., Pastor