Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas: The Empathy of God

The following was the homily I preached at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ at St Theresa's Catholic Parish.
“Does anyone understand me?”  “Nobody knows what I am going through.”  “I feel so alone.”  There isn’t one of us in here tonight that hasn’t thought or felt this at one point or another.  Depression.  Grief.  Worrying about the bills.  Husbands and wives fighting.  Children and parents not talking to each other.  Stress on the job.  So we are right to ask ourselves:  Does anyone understand?  Does nobody know what I am going through?  Why can’t I shake off this loneliness?

          Tonight is your answer.

          Most of us get only sympathy.  We might talk to someone, get convinced by platitudes like “oh there’s a silver lining somewhere” and become subjected to a barrage of advice we know to be a waste of time.  Sympathy’s nice, but the problem is, it’s cheap.

          Empathy, on the other hand, means someone does understand me, that someone does know what I am going through, and, no, you’re not alone.  That, my friends, is why tonight is your answer.

          What’s going on here, in this church, and throughout the world tonight?  Jesus’ birthday?  That’s too easy.  It’s Jesus’ birthday, yes, but it’s actually more than that.  Christmas, more than being the birthday of Jesus, is when God became a baby.  As we heard in the Proclamation tonight, “Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father…was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:  The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”  Christmas highlights the first of two central truths in Christianity:  The Incarnation.  “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us” [Jn 1:14] we read in John’s gospel; St Paul also wrote “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman” [Gal 4:4].

          In the story of creation in Genesis, God said that that each thing he made was called “good,” but the making of the human person was “very good.”  Even more than the brightest star or the most colourful nebula, the child, the woman, the man carries a worth far greater.  You and I—would you believe it?—are the crowning work of creation.  God didn’t come in the form of thunder and lightning or in some celestial portent or by way of a mass euphoric religious experience.  No.  He came as one of us.  At Christmas, God became a peer to the human race:  “Born as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”  In the soft cries of a Jewish boy in the backwaters of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, God’s voiced was joined to ours—God cried our cries.  God laughed our laughs.  God sorrowed our sorrows, God rejoiced in our joys.  God became one of us.  As Catholic Christians we believe this so true that repeated attempts to downplay the humanity of Jesus the God-Man was met, one by one, by anathemas swift and severe.  True God and true Man.

          By all rights, Mary should have been served by Elizabeth, travelled in a caravan of purebred horses and lodged at the choicest hotel, but no.  Seeing the plight of humanity, God willed instead to be subject Caesar’s brutal politics, an endangered pregnancy, and to have for his first home a cave reeking with smells of cows and sheep, and received a delegation of nobodies—shepherds.

          And, like you and me, the God-Man, Jesus, experienced the full range of human emotions.  He rejoiced in the Holy Spirit [Lk 10:21].  He was tempted in the desert [Mk 1:12-13].  He was angry with the money changers in the Temple [Jn 2:15].  He loved the rich young man [Mk 10:21].  He wept when His friend Lazarus died [Jn 11:35].  His heart was torn at seeing people without a caretaker [Mt 9:36].  He was afraid the night before Good Friday [Mk 14:34].  And at His crucifixion, Christ felt abandoned [Mk 15:34].

          Excusing himself from no human experience, the God-Man Jesus Christ endured even death.  In point of fact, God took on a human body precisely so that He, too, would experience human death.  Christmas was planned with Easter in mind.

          Christmas is the empathy of God.  During the period of the Old Testament, we took it on faith that God understood our struggles and shortcomings because God knows all things.  With Christmas, we now know this to be true because what makes us Christians is exactly the belief that God willed to commiserate with us by taking upon himself flesh and blood, mind and soul, and the ups and downs of human life.  That’s the ‘true Man’ side of the equation.

          The ‘true God’ side of the equation comes into clearer focus on Good Friday, “Ours were the sufferings He bore, ours the sorrows He carried…  Upon Him lies the chastisement that makes us whole, and by His wounds we were healed” [Is 53:4, 5].

          What does all of this say about you and me?  It means that you and I—whether we’re rich or poor, gay or straight, Asian or African or European or Native, disabled or not, unborn or elderly, whether we’re convicts or victims or surivors—it means that each of us is worth that much, that God would become one of us just so that God could say, “I am with you because I love you; see, I even became a baby.”

So, my friends, whatever you’re going through at home, at work, or in the privacy of our soul, Christ our God is with you.  But I know what you are thinking:  Why does life hurt so much?

          It hurts because we love.  Without love, those words from our spouses wouldn’t be so cutting.  Without love, the death of our children wouldn’t be so painful.  Without love, we wouldn’t miss our family and friends who are shipped off to Afghanistan.  Love, strangely enough, is what makes life hurt.  At the same time, if we had the choice of a love that hurts versus a loveless world, most of us, I’m sure, would still pick love.  And this is just what God has done.  “God is love,” and by his birth, God has willed to love to the point of being hurt, so that you can see in Jesus’ gaze just how far God went to prove his love.  Whatever is happening with you, don’t be afraid to throw yourselves in God’s arms, now open to receive your joys and sorrows, your hopes and griefs, your living and yes, even your dying.  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

          The paradox of Christmas is that God doesn’t take away our pain; instead, he endures it.

          The Incarnation of the Eternal Word endures, even to this night.  Just as Our Lady, our Mother, placed Christ gently into her hands, do we also receive Christ and partake of Him in this Eucharist.  When you hear “the Body of Christ,” “the Blood of Christ,” know that our true God is also true Man, and say “Amen.”  Take and receive Christ Who received your—our—flesh and blood.  Join yourselves to Him Who was joined to us.  Give Him your life, Whose life was given for you.

          Glory be to Jesus Christ, the one Incarnate nature of God the Word, unto the ages of ages.  Amen.