CHRISTMAS – SOLEMNITY OF THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD
Just at the break of dawn last Friday, following the longest night of the year, dozens of sleepy parishioners who had gathered in the 200-year-old Mission of San Juan Bautista in California rubbed the sleep from their eyes. A woman stood up in the hushed church and began to sing in haunting, solemn cadences. Outside, Native American drummers echoed her melody. As roosters crowed, a luminous rectangle appeared on the wall just to the left of the altar.
The illumination, as it has come to be called, had begun. Turning gold and then fiery, the patch of sunlight moved over the altar. At that exact moment, someone threw open the church’s great double doors, and a stream of light flowed down the 188-foot aisle to flood the sanctuary with light. One by one, parishioners moved to the altar to be bathed in the glorious light. It was a spectacular moment, the very moment for which the Franciscan Friars who founded the Mission designed the church.
We celebrate today the greatest illumination of all time. It happened long ago, in a dark cave in the little town of Bethlehem. There a young mother wrapped her new-born son in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. A tiny patch of life, golden with the glow of his first human breath, fiery in his determination to live among the people who were created in his very image, drew the rapt attention of Mary and Joseph. Then the angel of the Lord threw open the gates of heaven, and the fields around Bethlehem were flooded in a glorious light as heavenly choirs sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
“O Star of Wonder, Star of Light, Star with royal beauty bright.” Magi will see the illumination in the heavens and travel long and far to worship at the altar of the child’s crib. Filled with joy like the shepherds, they will kneel to be bathed in light, just as the worshippers in Mission San Juan Bautista step into the light 2000 years later and more than 7000 miles away.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” The dawn began ever so slowly, like the patch of sunlight on a church wall. But it has spread all around the world. We gather today with brothers and sisters of every nation and people and tribe and tongue to greet the coming of the light at its beginning.
The great universal Catholic Church, like the little mission church in California, has been designed and built to capture the first gleam of light, its doors open to be filled to overflowing with the light of faith, hope, and love. Its altars aglow with the presence of the Eucharistic Lord, are – each and every one of them – a place where men and women can be bathed in the soothing light of Christ. That light forgives sins, heals memories, soothes hurts, reconciles enemies, pours the balm of calmness over minds unsettled by worry, renews hope that with the morn those angel faces will smile which we have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Yes, my brothers and sisters, we often feel that we are a people walking in darkness. We feel engulfed by scandal within the leadership of the Church and entangled in chaos by the leaders of a world that is in worse turmoil that any in the past half-century. That is why we gather in this church this night. Like the good people of San Juan Bautista, we wait with confident expectation that a small patch of light which we glimpse in the manger is about to expand and spread, engulfing us in its glow and firing us up to carry the light out into the darkness outside. Like the shepherds long ago at Bethlehem, we return glorifying and praising God for what we have seen and heard, and determined to bring the Good News to others, Our God is indeed with us. Not because of our goodness or merit, but simply out of depths of his infinite love, he has come to save us.
May the light of Christ fill your hearts and homes and bring joy and peace to all the world.