Surrender and Save Your Life - Christmas Eve
On this night quietly, in obscurity, far from the center of power, wealth and authority, as Caesar struts his stuff by demanding that everyone in the empire show up and register for taxation, a woman bears a child in rude shelter far from home.
On this night angels sing but nobody hears except for the shepherds. The animals go about their business unconcerned; the little town of Bethlehem snoozes, for it is a world lit only by fire. Only watchmen and shepherds stay up late, and the shepherds were likely dozing when the angel appeared.
The child receives rudimentary care but is received with deep love, as it should be with all children. But even that is ordinary. No one is much disturbed; many babies are born, after all. Actually, though, there is somewhere a disturbance in the force, for as a medieval English carol puts it, “All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold doth shake, but in this weak, unarmed guise the gates of hell he will surprise.” Hell is worried; its domain has been invaded.
It is so quiet, it happens in the silence of the night, because after all the Son of God has just dropped behind enemy lines, and that is done stealthily. In the World War II book, Band of Brothers, the superb Lieutenant Dick Winters at one point says, “Of course, we’re surrounded; we’re supposed to be surrounded; we’re paratroopers.” It’s not a bad image for the situation into which the infant Jesus descends. He is surrounded by enemies, but they are doomed.
As Christians we need to be very clear about this. We need to remember that the enemies of God, of the good, are real and constant. The silent night is also the night of sin. Those who have seen a great light have seen it and rejoiced in it precisely because they have walked in darkness.
Like Jesus, we too are dropped behind enemy lines. Not right now, not here, at least not entirely. Here in this Church, at this manger, as we celebrate God-with-us in the Eucharist and in the Word, here he rules. Here we sing the songs of angels and, kneeling at the manger, we actually stand in the heavenly court. Nevertheless and in all honesty we need to remember that the line between good and evil runs not between ‘us and them,’ but right down the middle of the human heart. In a very real way each of us is in part enemy territory.
But in an equally real way each of us is territory occupied by the Son of God. We may stumble and falter in acknowledging who our true and proper lord is. We surely do not always live as if he were our true and proper Lord, but in faith we know to whom we belong. We belong to this Child and to the One he will teach us to call his Father and ours. We may often walk in darkness but we have also seen the light.
We are, I pray, drawn here not just by carols and sentiment but by the realization that it’s dangerous out there in enemy territory, and that we need to place our trust in the undeserved mercy and power that shines forth from the manger.
There is no need on this night to describe the darkness in detail. We have the media for that. But we need to remember that the light shines as a sign of contradiction to all sin, to all evil, and to the crushing mystery of iniquity – its capacity to surge forth from hell again and again in individual lives and in the great and small Caesars of every age. The light contradicts these enemies and shall overcome them in the end.
So let the light do its work tonight.
There is no need on this night to describe the darkness in detail. We have the media for that, and they are often part of the darkness. But there is every need to remember that the Church’s language of sin and evil is not empty rhetoric, but a painful, necessary reflection upon the truth of things.
We speak truthfully of the darkness, so that we might open our eyes to the greater truth of the Infant, the mother, and the protective foster father . . . So that we might open our eyes and ears with the Shepherds to see the herald angel and to hear the angelic armies sing . . .
There is a need to remember, so that we do not forget that Christmas is about the warfare for our hearts and souls, so that we remember to fight for the right side.
And Christmas helps us to do that. This season does move hearts. The parties and the gift-giving and the magnificent, exhausting tackiness of it all can crush the message, but they need not. For even in and through them shines the light of love for others, for their joy and for their company.
But if that is so, how much more does the celebration of this Mass assist us to see the light and fight for the right side! Hell can be defeated by a baby and the devil routed by the love of a family. The enemy’s hold on his territory is not as strong as it seems. Faith can open the most blind of eyes to the good, and there beams from the manger a beauty that invites all humanity to see God.
Let it then be so for you. Behold the face of God, God as a smiling gurgling infant, God uniting himself to us who had rebelled against him.
Let him this day re-conquer some portion of your heart, some portion that has wandered, that has rebelled; some portion of your heart that has allowed faith, hope, joy and love to erode; some portion of your heart that has forgotten where its real good lies.
Let him re-conquer some place where you have yielded to falsehood or denial, where you have insisted that you are wiser than you are – or better than you are. As the lead character in the long defunct comic strip Pogo used to put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Know the enemy within you, let the light shine in the darkness, and surrender to the Child.
For unlike other conquerors the Christ Child has been dropped behind enemy lines to save the hearts, souls and lives of the enemy. Surrender and save your life.
Robert Southwell, SJ, the priest and poet and martyred under Elizabeth I of England, wrote a splendid poem for this season, “A Child, My Choice.” Its closing stanzas are as follows:
His knowledge rules, His strength defends, His love doth cherish all;
His birth our joy, His life our light, His death our end of thrall.
Alas! He weeps, He sighs, He pants, yet do His angels sing;
Out of His tears, His sighs and throbs, doth bud a joyful spring.
Almighty Babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die!
Surrender and save your life.