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The True King Is Different And Wants to Make You Different Too (Christmas Midnight Mass, 2020-12-24/25)

Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ

Homily for Christmas Mass at Midnight

2020-12-25

Isaiah 9:2-7; Ps 98; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)

 

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Tonight, we remember a baby boy in a manger in a stable cave in Bethlehem, 2000 years ago. Who is he really, and why is his birth still widely commemorated, far outside of religious circles?

A sociological answer is that the Christian faith in itself is a primary source of the philosophical environment for democracy, modern science and the culture of what we call the Western world; of the idea of human dignity and human rights. Christmas, not a general “Holiday season”, although hidden under secular layers of consumerism and sentimentality, thus reminds of our society’s need to re-connect to, and protect, its Christian foundations.

After having said that, one realises this can only be accomplished through the many personal conversions, at all levels of society, creating the necessary social fabric of virtues like self-sacrifice, self-restraint and the pursuit of objective truth. Which leads us to the core focus of Christmas: a person, calling for, and assisting in, such a conversion; who is not yet another peace prophet or a “feelgood” teacher with beautiful sayings about love. Such a delusion stems from an unwillingness to take a stand on Jesus’s own claims regarding his identity, or at least, like for too many Christians today, regrettably, an unwillingness to show one’s stand, horrified to the thought of being “different” from others. This night, however, reminds us of our Christian vocation as precisely that: to be different.

The Christmas Night gospel first introduced us to a king. Caesar Augustus, Roman Emperor, the most powerful person in the ancient world, gave orders for a census, which spoke volumes as the ultimate expression of an ideology: all people belong to the ruler and therefore he wants to know their exact location, to find them when necessary, and tax them.

We then heard of a birth taking place in Bethlehem, as consequence of this census, as it were, of which some terrified shepherds that night were told by angels is of a new king, the true king of the world. References to “the town of David”, “Christ”, in Hebrew “Messiah”, and “the Lord”, told first century Jews that time had come for the realisation of the old prophecies, of which we heard one of the most famous in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Prophesies ensuring that God would intervene in the course of history in a definite way, so that “[a]ll the ends of the earth”, as expressed by our response to the psalm, would be offered a redeeming covenant, the eternal fulfilment of God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

The angel’s message is centred around three concepts: “saviour” – “sotér” in Greek, the international language of that age, peace – “oikuméne”, and “news of great joy” – “evangélion”. These concepts were the promises of the Roman Empire, but are also the promises of all succeeding rulers, ideologies and social systems, good and evil, of the world. Thus, we begin to get the point: It is only the true king who will fulfill these values, as they in their true sense are the values of the Kingdom of God. Nothing merely human, no Caesar whatsoever, however powerful, enlightened, social, modern, ecological, tolerant, equal, diverse, efficient, rational or whatever is the preferred label of the day, can even come close. Because we humans, also in the high-tech age, are limited and deficient, whilst the true king, Jesus of Nazareth, where he is to grow up, is the Son in the Divine Trinity; God’s own Word who reveals and expresses the identity, will and power of God the Father. The true king alone is the one who can make a real difference.

Simultaneously truly human, Jesus reveals the truth about humanity. Like e.g. that our corporeality makes us male or female as part of our nature, and not as added attribute. Humans are either male or female. Jesus is male. All attempts, also from Christians having surrendered to the confusing Caesar of contemporary ideologies, to turn the gender of our Lord into something abstract, that as well could be something else and thus lacks significance, confirm a deeply anti-Christian idea that humans ultimately construct themselves and need neither a creator nor a saviour.

But Jesus comes to save us from our self-chosen God-absence, its confusion and its eternal consequence. In order to save us, he must be divine. And in order to go through death, and carry God to confront and defeat it, he must be human. From the manger in Bethlehem goes a straight line to Calvary. The price for God’s willingness to personally save us, is his incarnate Son’s suffering and death on the cross. But the gain is the restoration and resurrection of the human flesh, of the total existence, body and soul, for the one who believes in him.

Through the Incarnation, God not only assumes matter as something good, created by him, but also demonstrates absolute divine power. If we cannot believe in the Virgin birth and the Resurrection of Jesus, we deny that matter belongs to God. And if matter would not belong and be submitted to God, God would not be God. Then, evil, suffering and darkness would have the last word, and we be without hope. But instead, God’s absolute power restores everything according to his plan, in a way that to us turns all worldly ideals upside down. Starting with him entering our world not as a prince in the imperial palace in Rome, but in a manger in an out-of-the-way corner of the world.

So, behold the true king, who visits us, as one of us, to draw us to himself; to transform us in our matter so that we by grace can become what he is by his divine nature: partakers of the eternal communion of love that is God. Starting already in time, and one day fulfilled beyond.

Behold the true king, the only one to whom we belong, because we were made thorugh him, in his image; and according to whose will, explained by the teaching of the Church he founded, i.e. the Catholic Church, we are called to order everything in our lives. “[T]o give up […] all our worldly ambitions”, as said in the second reading from the Letter to Titus; i.e. to turn from, as benchmark for purpose and hope in life, all Caesars, i.e. idols, ideologies and opinions, of the world. Not because they cannot do good, some of them sometimes can, but because they unavoidably will vanish, with their achievements.

After the fall of the first humans, divine life, saving grace, cannot be found within us, or in the “nature”, or anywhere in the world. It has to be brought, added, to the world by God himself. Tonight, like every year during the last 2000 years, the Church gratefully celebrates God’s way of doing this, in the greatest of mysteries, by becoming a baby boy; i.e. placing himself as a peaceful offering, for us to say yes to, to receive and cooperate with, for our salvation. Amen.

 

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