Homily for the Vigil Mass of Christmas

David Oatney Blog: Life at 25

Isaiah 62:1-5
Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
Matthew 1:18-25

Tonight’s readings for the Vigil Mass of Christmas give us a small glimpse into the dilemma in which St. Joseph almost certainly found himself. Doubtless we can reasonably assume that when Mary told Joseph that she was with child and that an angel came to her and informed her that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah and that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Joseph didn’t initially believe her.  We can safely make this assumption based on what Scripture is telling us tonight that Joseph was prepared to divorce Mary “quietly,” and such a breakup would have been in keeping with the laws of Moses observed by devout Jews. What would not have been in keeping with the laws or the customs of either Moses or of that time period in history would be Joseph keeping quiet and, as the Revised Standard Version renders the passage in a way which is likely a far more accurate rendering of the situation when it says that Joseph was “a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.” (cf. Matt. 1:19) Even in feeling the most terrible betrayal that he must have felt, Joseph was determined not to put Mary’s life at risk, because he knew that death was the penalty for someone who had committed adultery and been found out.

St. Joseph probably had an initial reaction that was something along the lines of “how could you do this to me Mary, I loved you and trusted you. Angel of the Lord…right!” The angel had to come to Joseph in a dream and explain to him what was going on before he would come to understand that this was the most extraordinary birth of a child in all of history, but it wasn’t going to appear extraordinary at first to anyone but a chosen few people who understood what was happening because God had somehow or other made it known to them.

Sometimes in our popular culture or in our devotional life we tend to simplify the Lord’s Nativity, and perhaps even romanticize it. Many of us have nativity scenes in our homes this time of year that seem to show Mary and Joseph and shepherds and animals pausing in adoration of the Christ child.  It is a wonderful image to meditate upon because we should adore the Christ child, we should think of the Baby Jesus anew as we revisit Christmas each year. We should not forget, however, then our Lord’s Nativity was an event which caused tremendous hardship and distress to the Holy Family.

These were people who were told by the government of an occupying power, a pagan empire which they distrusted and which distrusted them, that they all must go to the places of their ancestors in order for a census to be taken, a census which would prepare them to be taxed- and ultimately to be extorted-in order to fund the expansion of a Roman Empire that they never asked to be a part of. To avoid the penalty of Roman law Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem. We understand that it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but there is no indication that Mary and Joseph had any desire to leave their home and their families in Nazareth in order to go to Bethlehem to satisfy the Roman tax man, they appear to have gone because they had no choice.

When they arrived in Bethlehem there was no room for them in the crowded town and so the baby Jesus was born in a stable, in those days it would likely have been a cave, which meant that the atmosphere that night, regardless of the time of year, was cold, dark, and must have seemed foreboding. They didn’t have anywhere to lay the little baby that was born that night so they laid him in a manger.  Let us be reminded of what a manger is. Anyone here who has ever had farm animals knows that a manger is a feeding trough for those animals. You can certainly put hay in a manger, but you would also put any other feed for the cattle, sheep, goats, or other animals. Back then, there was no Tractor Supply, Farmers’ Cooperative, or feed milling company for the farmer or livery owner to obtain clean grain feed. The animals would have been fed whatever their owners had on hand that they could cobble together, which meant that the Supreme Ruler of the Universe spent his first night on earth in the open air in an environment that we today would likely take for utterly filthy, and would likely render a call to child and family services.  

It’s also very noteworthy that on the night Jesus was born the choirs of angels made their appearance to shepherds who were in the field watching their flocks by night. (cf. Luke 2:8-14) Not only was Bethlehem a center for shepherds, and King David’s family were shepherds (remember that Bethlehem is the hometown of King David), but many Catholic scholars believe that shepherds were among some of the most isolated and even despised people of that era of history. Because of their manner of life, strict observance of the temple purity laws would have been impossible for many shepherds of that time, so the Angels were sent to tell them that their day of liberation had come thanks to the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep.

The Lord Of Glory, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the only-begotten of the Father could have come into the world and ruled as King had he chosen to do so. He could have come and destroyed the enemies of God, he could have come and destroyed evil for all time. Instead, he came into our time and into human history to save humanity from ourselves, to save us from our own concupiscence, short-sightedness, and most importantly to save us from sin. Our Lord was born Into a working family of that time, one that to save Jesus’ own life would become refugees from their home and family, in order that he might live life in the most ordinary and even lowly human circumstances.

An acquaintance of mine via social media bluntly asked the question earlier this month. “The Incarnation: Why did God do that?” St. Paul provides the answer in part in the words of an early Christian hymn. “Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (cf. Philippians 2:6-8)  God “did that” because he loves us. God “did that” for you. In all of our celebration and all of our enjoyment tonight and tomorrow and in the days to come, that is a reality that is truly worth celebrating.