December 27 - First Sunday of Christmas
You know something that I haven’t done in a while? Exult! “I will greatly exult in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.” Isaiah, on this first Sunday of Christmas, is trying to give us permission to rejoice, to exult, to celebrate and he talks about it in such a way that we are to wear our joy in God’s goodness as if it were made for us: our “garments of salvation,” to use the prophet’s stunning metaphor. Christ, our savior and Lord, is born, is here. “What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The message of Christmas is at once joyful - Joy to the world was our opening hymn, right? -, hopeful, and designed for us to understand that we have been given the power, by the grace and mercy of God’s coming in Christ, to become God’s own children. There is much to celebrate!
The question may be, “When was the last time I/you celebrated?” I mean really felt like there was something to whoop and holler about. You see, we feel covered in darkness. Isaiah promised us on Christmas Eve that “those who lived in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Christmas reminds us of the thing that already happened: God took us full on and became one of us: wretched, vulnerable, and human in every way, except, He was still the Son of God, perfect in his humanness. The road ahead will not always be easy for God’s Son who came into the world, born to poor parents. He will be driven out, beaten, tortured and killed. He will be ignored, scorned, and abandoned by even His own people. And yet, nothing takes away the power of Christ to make us God’s own because Christ has been forever joined to us by His own grace and mercy. Christ has come as one of us. How can we not rejoice at that? How can we fail to exult if we understand that nothing can separate us from the love of God known to us in Christ our Lord?
Yes, this has been a tough year. We have all been mightily affected by 2020’s lack of charm. COVID, front and center, has been the sultan of stink, the prince of pain, the beginning and end of a really rotten year, in so many ways. And while I am teasing a bit, since COVID came to us in February of this year, we have seen massive job loss, lost businesses, and, above all, lost lives, shattered families, and a general fear and malaise that has been hard to take, let’s be honest, simply hard to overcome; a challenge to be cheerful amidst all this anguish and sadness. Even if we have been “lucky” and kept our jobs, not been too hurt by the pandemic, we have all known people who have been and for all of us it has changed the way we see the sun, the stars, and feel about the future … to some degree, again, if we are being honest.
Christmas of 1985 was a really bad one for me. I was senior in college and thought I was moving toward the Catholic priesthood. My mother, as I have told you in the past, suffered from bipolar disorder and ’85 might have been her worst year with it, when the disease that had been better for a number of years exploded out of control for a lot of reasons. She sometimes, unfortunately, used alcohol to deaden the terrible and intense psychic pain she was in, which, along with other things she was taking, could create a bad effect. Christmas Eve my father had to carry her to bed … they had had a really rough year. I remember my father returning to the room, after tucking my mother in, and my sisters must have been asleep by then. I remember putting my head down on the kitchen table, and sobbing, exhausted, my father speaking words of comfort, as best he could. It has been a really long year with no real hope in sight.
In the winter of the following year, I began to go up to UNC-Chapel Hill to the Cardinal Newman Center to have community with other young Catholics. My college was Southern Baptist and I think I was one of about seven Catholics there, so … off to UNC for Catholic community I went. My parish priest, who I had grown up with and who was preparing me for Holy Orders was, for me, a little aloof and I was looking for someone to talk to.
Fr. Jim Levin, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, then a priest, was one of the several priests that I met at the Newman Center. I went on a retreat in the early spring of ’86, still reeling a bit from the previous year. Fr. Levin spoke during a Eucharist at the retreat. He told the story of how, a few years prior, he had been diagnosed with stage four cancer of some sort, and began the laborious chemo, with little hope it would help. He reported feeling surprisingly calm, but prayed for healing every day. One day, he woke up, and didn’t feel sick, something felt different, he said. His doctor was puzzled and ordered a scan and, when it was read, it showed no cancer. Subsequent tests continued to show no signs of the cancer and, over the following months he was said to be in remission and had been for the past twenty years. Hmmmm, I thought.
Later, after the absolution, as the service continued, we passed the peace, a pretty staid affair at my parish church. But all these young people and the priests in attendance began to hug one another. People came up to me, smiling, embracing me, and saying, “the Peace of Christ be with you.” I remember distinctly feeling the ice floes that had dammed up my life, my heart, my exultant spirit break free and suddenly Christ’s love felt present and real to me again, for the first time in a long time.
I know this is a very personal story but remember, Isaiah was writing his great prophetic book to an exiled people; people who had been “in darkness” for a really long time. To them, he proclaimed that One was coming who would shine a light of freedom, release from the dark of their literal and spiritual prison, and deliver them back into the place of God’s promise.
John’s Gospel echoes the promise that Isaiah spoke of in the form of the light of Christ, the Word that was in the beginning, the One who was there when the foundations of the world were made, and “what has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The Light of heaven and earth, the Savior of the world, is here, has been here, and through His great love and sacrifice, he has brought us “grace upon grace.” Think about it: the Son of God, He who was with God, has come amongst us, to lead us, guide us, teach us, and die for us. The Creator of all things has taken on the form of our human life so that He could bless us with the power to become children of God; to, finally, choose God. We are saved. We are delivered and God, in Christ, is forever with us. Now that is something to celebrate; to EXULT in. And COVID-19, mean-spirited people, nor anything else can separate us from God’s grace in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas