Saturday, December 28, 2013

Holy Family

Poor ol’ Charlie Brown. In his TV Christmas special, he has to contend aluminum Christmas trees, his sister’s greedy letter to Santa, Snoopy’s tacky decorations, and a true lack of "good will toward men" on the part of his friends. Finally he cries out in frustration: "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?" Whereupon Linus calls for a spotlight, and beautifully recites the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s gospel. This familiar story warns us of the danger that the commercialization and stress associated with Christmas can sometimes obscure the fact that "Jesus is the reason for the season."

However, you and I face another danger too. Not that the season’s distractions will drown out the Christmas story, but that we’ve heard it so many times that it no longer touches our hearts. It’s become so familiar to us that we’ve become jaded and indifferent. We hear the Christmas gospel proclaimed and think: "Tell me something I don’t already know." It’s become to us like a song we really liked when it first came out, but then it got overplayed. When we hear it now, we don’t turn up the volume, we roll our eyes and change the channel.

I would imagine that many of us have felt this way, even if just a little bit. So maybe today, like Charlie Brown, we should take a good hard look at what Christmas really is all about. Let’s put aside for a moment all the shepherds, angels, wise men, mangers, and stars shining in the East. They’re all important- don’t get me wrong! But at the heart of Christmas is the amazing, astounding, breathtaking truth that, in Jesus, God became human. God- all powerful, all knowing, the creator of a cosmos billions of light years across- became a fragile, weak, tiny, and completely helpless baby on the first Christmas day. By his own choice, he became one of us.

The proclamation of this wonderful truth struck those who first heard it as a lightning bolt- both the Romans and the Jews. The Romans had their gods of course- Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the whole lot. But by Jesus’ day, no one really cared about or believed in them. There were temples and religious holidays, and people went through the motions, but there was very little in the way of personal faith and devotion. These gods failed to inspire because they were too human, in the negative sense of the word. Their number included murderers and rapists, and they all fell prey to the whole range of human temptations- pride, envy, anger, jealousy, lust. Many Romans understandably found the God of the Jews- our God- as far more attractive. After all, there was only one of him. He was an ethical God who commanded respect, and was worthy of worship and obedience.

Unfortunately, by the time of Jesus’ birth, God was seen as being very far removed from everyday human life. Keeping the law and religious traditions were important, but that had become burdensome and oppressive. There was little appreciation of a personal relationship with God who involved himself in human affairs. God was silent. God was remote.

But with the coming of Jesus, everything changed. In Jesus, God was born, lived, worked, sweated, made friends, had enemies, experienced joy, knew disappointment, laughed, suffered, and died. In Jesus, God became a member of a family- the Holy Family- Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, which we remember and celebrate today. Jesus was fully human! But he wasn’t human in the sense that the Roman gods were human. Jesus was perfectly human. Through the life he lived, he showed how God wants us to be human.

Deep down, this is how all of us want to live our lives. We could see this reflected in a fad from a few years ago in which people created "avatars"- animated characters- to represent themselves in popular computer games. Through their "avatar," a person playing the game could become anyone he or she wanted to be. Nevertheless, most players created characters that were simply better versions of their real selves- the people they would like to be, or wish they were, in real life. This, I think, is evidence of a desire we all have to be our best selves. And this is what Jesus has shown us how to do. To be the best we can be, we need to live in imitation of Jesus.

However, Jesus does much more than show us how to be human. He shows us, and enables us, to become like God. Did you catch that? God the Son became one of us so we could become like God. In Jesus, God united himself with our humanity so we could be united with his divinity- for all eternity. Because of Jesus, it’s our hope that in heaven we’ll not only be with God, we will be one with God, and share the same nature. "For the Son of God became man," wrote St. Athanasius, "so that we might become God." How amazing is that? How awesome is that? Yet that’s the truth that lies at the heart of our Christmas celebration.

The Washington Post once ran a nice story about how the cloistered Carmelite nuns in Southern Maryland celebrate Christmas. One nun, Sister Clare Joseph, said: "I just want to tell people, 'Don't you realize God became a man? Do you realize how astonishing that is?'" Then she lamented: "I don't think people even think about that. . . in our society."

She’s right. And sometimes we in the Church are guilty of the very same thing. So perhaps we all need, this Christmas season, to think about the true meaning of Christmas, and reflect on the magnitude of what God did for us when he became human in Jesus Christ. Because if we do, we won’t yawn with boredom. We will fall on our knees with awe.

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