Sunday, December 25, 2011

Yes, Virginia, There is a God in Bethlehem

Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds 1639

by Govert Teunisz. Flinck

(Solemnity of the Nativity-Year B; This homily was given on 25 December, 2011 at St. Joseph's Church in Woonsocket, R.I.; See John 1:1-18)

The year was 1897 and an eight-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon was having a crisis of faith. Her friends had confronted her and suggested that, because they had never seen Santa Claus, he must not really exist. Obviously shaken by that kind of challenge she went to her father and asked for his advice. He told her to write a letter to the local paper, The New York Sun, and wait to hear what they would say. "If you see it in The Sun," he had told her,"it’s so."

Virginia followed her father’s advice and the reply she received is today the most reprinted newspaper editorial ever written; it has been translated into dozens of languages and has been read by children and adults the world over for more than a century. That famous editorial begins:

"Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge."

"The skepticism of a skeptical age…" Those are fairly big words for an eight-year-old girl, but of course the editor was not only writing to Virginia; he was writing to everyone who has ever been confronted with the challenge of believing in a world and in things that—although invisible—are every bit as real and enduring as the tangible universe we experience each day. He was offering an argument against the spirit of the age that denied the things that matter most merely because they could not be contained in a test-tube, dissected in a laboratory or explained by the laws of Newton.

The editor went on to write:

"You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart."

"Only faith," he wrote, "fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond."

Only faith…can push aside that curtain…

We come now to one of the greatest Feast Days of the Church’s liturgical year, the Solemnity of the Nativity, the birth of our eternal Savior, Jesus Christ. At the heart of this feast is the God who created this world breaking forth into the midst of it and making visible what has been hidden from all eternity. Christmas is the time, above all the times and seasons of the year, when the veil is lifted and the power of faith is working in the hearts of children and adults alike. It is a time when the unseen world is suddenly made known, manifested, in glorious and striking ways.

In the readings from the days leading up to the celebration of The Nativity we hear of a young woman from the town of Nazareth whose name was Mary. She receives a message from an angel that she will conceive and bear in her womb the Son of God Most High. And she believes what the Angel Gabriel says to her! She sees him, listens to him, and surrenders herself in childlike faith to the God who speaks to her through that angel. The curtain was being pushed aside by Mary’s faith; the veil lifting.

The same angel had already appeared to a man named Zachariah, telling him that he and his wife, although past the time for bearing children, would also have a son whose name would be John. The Baptist would be the Herald of the Messiah who would come to save the world from sin.

Then we come to today’s feast, Christmas Day. Yet another messenger from the unseen world appears to certain shepherds who were watching over their flocks at night, and they were terrified! Visits from angels in both the Old Testament and the New are almost always marked by such fearful wonder. The shepherd’s are told of a child who is born in Bethlehem, a Savior for all the world, "and suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests'"(Luke 2:13-14).

A multitude of angels! A sky-full of the heavenly host! The shepherds must have been completely overwhelmed! The veil had been torn wide-open and the unseen world was on display in all its grandeur.

Such is the reality of the birth of Christ among us. As St. John the Evangelist describes in the prologue to his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

—John 1:1-2

Before time and before every created thing, God is. Through the Word, says St. John, all things came to be and without Him nothing came to be at all (see John 1:3). But then, suddenly, the most remarkable thing happens. God, who is invisible and supra-temporal takes on our human nature and reveals Himself in time:

And the Word became flesh

and made his dwelling among us,

and we saw his glory,

the glory as of the Father’s only Son,

full of grace and truth.

—John 1:14

The sacred liturgy describes this remarkable manifestation of the eternal love of God in a similar way:

For in the mystery of the Word made flesh

a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes

of our mind,

so that, as we recognize in him God made visible,

we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.

—Preface I of the Nativity of the Lord

This is the miracle of Christmas, the miracle of the love of God made present and seen by angels and men alike. Jesus Christ, born in a cave in Bethlehem, would make Himself known to a people yearning and pining for the salvation of God. He walked our streets and healed our sick; He opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead. Jesus Christ suffered on the cross for love and gave Himself in the most visible and provocative way. The veil of the Temple was torn in two as the unseen God left no more room for doubt about how very far He was wiling to go to grant us forgiveness and extend to us the gift of eternal life.

But there is a crisis of faith in our own time that is not at all unlike the crisis that Virginia O’Hanlon was suffering from back in 1897. We, too, live in a skeptical age where people are reluctant or slow to believe all that God has revealed. Nonetheless, what people yearn for and long for every bit as much as the people at the time of Christ is salvation, healing, wholeness, peace. They are not looking for Santa Claus. They are looking and searching for the living God.

How is God challenging the Church to be courageous in making that God known in our own day and age? We who gather together at the altar of God week after week, where the body and the blood of Christ are made visible, made manifest and given to us in love; we who are strengthened by that Blessed Sacrament and nourished in the Word of God; we are called to make Him known in the world in word and deed, to make God visible because we are His body in this world.

May we who see this God made visible become ever more caught up in love of Him and those eternal mysteries that are often invisible, so that our lives may be oriented towards that unseen world that beckons us every moment of every day. As we live our Catholic faith in this world, may the God who was born and dwelt among us two thousand years ago continue to be born in the hearts of all those we encounter in the days ahead.