So Hasten and Kneel with the Shepherds
People have never lived longer or healthier lives than do we. We live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation that has ever appeared on the earth. A powerful military keeps us safer than we imagine. Crime has, overall, fallen steadily since the seventies. Most of us enjoy a fair amount of personal and economic security, as do our neighbors. Poverty endures certainly, but the starvation and serious malnutrition that afflicted parts of our country until the sixties have largely disappeared. The War on poverty at least managed that much. We have vast opportunities for communication, information, and entertainment. The arts flourish – even some of high quality. And while there are real threats to liberties and human rights, we remain a much freer people than our peers in developed nation.
In spite of this – and partly because of it -- our society is dyspeptic, grumpy, divided, shrill to the point of hysteria, and confused about the most basic realities of life.
How can this be?
Part of it has to do with our sharp political and cultural divisions and the delusion that if and when our people get into power, all will be well. Our unhappiness results from placing too much trust in princes – which the Psalm tells us not to do. We expect the government to solve too many of our problems, to make us happy rather than to enable the pursuit of happiness – as Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence got right. We forget that for all the significance of the state, our lives mainly revolve around other much more important things – family and friends, celebrations [like Christmas!], the worship of God, mutual care, useful work, the tending of our gardens and homes, the welcoming of new life, good conversation, the beauty of the world around us and of human love. Indeed, it is our failures in these areas, especially in matters of marriage and family, that take the greatest toll.
And we too easily forget that our problems pale by comparison to those of others – like the people to whom Isaiah speaks in the Old Testament reading for the Mass at night. The people who walked in darkness are the northernmost tribes of Israel who at the time of the prophecy in the 730’s B.C. had been torn away from the Kingdom of Israel and incorporated into the Assyrian Empire. They were experiencing real darkness, the possibility of death and slavery, and the loss of the opportunity to worship the true God.
We don’t have troubles like that. Our misery, our darkness – individually and as a culture – are largely self-inflicted. Our misery comes from our desire to blame others, a character defect that goes all the way back to the fall story in Genesis: Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. The snake?
But what if we break the pattern? Isaiah says that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, that redemption will dawn where disaster first struck. The territory of which he speaks is the land of the northernmost tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali – a territory already in Isaiah’s time called Galilee of the Gentiles. It is there that the light of the Son to be born will first break out, when Jesus begins his ministry. And before that in Nazareth in Galilee, the Virgin will say yes to Gabriel, and events will roll toward the birth we celebrate tonight.
The light erupts where the darkness of Israel’s defeats first descended.
We break the pattern of our self-inflicted misery when we turn our focus away from the darkness, stop bewailing a situation that isn’t at all bad, count our blessings and start putting our faith and hope in the right place. Caesar made a big pronouncement that all the world should be enrolled; little did he know that he was playing a bit part in the real drama – the drama of the Word made flesh.
To heal we must pause at the manger and remember that what is really happening is what God is up to.
It’s not that there isn’t real darkness; there is, certainly in America also. But as Christians we know that the most threatening darkness is self-inflicted. I’ve said enough already about our self-inflicted wounds. Tonight we look to the glory of God, to that healing that God brings in the infant. Tonight we get our perspective back; we turn off the news and listen for the good news. Tonight God reminds us of what is truly important – his faithfulness, his promises, communion with him and with one another, lives of virtue, dignity and good works.
The ads of which we saw so many before Christmas showed again and again happy reunions, excitement at the generosity of others, warm scenes of families around the table, and children dazzled by things much more expensive than sugar plums. They appeal to us, you see, by appealing to things that are good or mostly good. The season at its most commercial is at odds with the Grinch-like undercurrents of our culture. Moods may be dark, but even the ad-men break through.
If advertising can do it, the baby in the manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph and the shepherds should surely help to clear our minds and open our hearts.
If sentimental good feelings can help people to see through the darkness, then the reminder that God became flesh and went into dark places deeper than we know ought to calm the hysteria and help us to see past the folly of those who generate it.
Let the image of the child in his mother’s arms move you to faith and trust. God has better things in store for us than do those who would whip our anxieties and exploit our fears – and I am not pointing the finger in any one direction.
Faith, adoration, zeal for good works – these are the fruits of the Feast of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
In the end there is beauty. In the end there is warmth. In the end there is love. In the end there is light, for the light of God is at the beginning and the end.
So hasten and kneel with the shepherds.
Sing and rejoice with the angels.
Stand faithful watch with Joseph and care for those who need your presence.
Contemplate the mystery of the incarnation with John.
And like Mary have faith in God who has better plans for you than you have for yourself. Better plans for the world too.