We have all received many Christmas cards in recent weeks. Most of the cards I receive—and I suppose this is true for many priests and bishops and sisters--display a picture of the Christmas crib, a scene found in all our parish churches and in many of our homes tonight. I like to line up on my dresser a large number of these beautiful cards and compare how this simple scene—the baby Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, shepherds, angels, sheep and other animals, kings off in the distance—is differently interpreted, depending on the artist’s talent, on the place or in which century the scene was painted. . These many different renditions of the nativity give me a sense of the human universality of this story. The passages from Holy Scripture tonight, however, give us more. They give us God’s interpretation of the story.
When a child is born, one has to give him or her a name. What is he to be called? Jesus had a name long before he was born of the Virgin Mary. From all eternity, he is the word of God. Many centuries before the word was made flesh, those waiting for him gave him other names. The Prophet Isaiah recalls several of them: Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. The names tell us who he is: a sign of hope amidst the darkest periods of human history, the fulfillment of the promise made by God to the House of David.
When a child is born, one asks again: Whom does he resemble? Does he look like his mother or perhaps like his paternal grandfather? Scripture tells us that, in being born in the city of David, Jesus looks like David. And St. Paul, in the letter to Titus tonight, also says that Jesus resembles God. Jesus is the manifestation of God to us; and he himself would say just days before his death: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” This will be most evident, St. Paul reminds us, when Jesus returns in glory: “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
When a child is born, one wonders whom he will resemble in his activity and work and talents. Sometimes a mother, exasperated as a child begins to make his own way in the family, says: “You are as hard-headed as your father.” At least, I heard that more than once from my mother. St. Luke, in the Gospel tonight, tells us that Jesus acts like God because he comes to save us from our sins. “Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born for you…”
As a boy and young man, King David was a shepherd; and Jesus’ birth is first announced to shepherds. Abel, slain son of Adam and Eve, was also a shepherd, as were many of the patriarchs of Israel. God himself was called the Shepherd of Israel. And the Eternal Word of God, the Word now made flesh, is born among shepherds, of a shepherd’s line and house. But if the flesh is of David, the Word himself is God.
For ourselves, city dwellers and others who live not often with sheep but with dogs and cats at best, there is now a word which we must nevertheless hear and live. The word of God became flesh in order to be better understood. The task now for us is to listen to God in such a way that our own flesh becomes word. When we find in God’s word the sense of everything we are and all that we do, then all that we are and everything we do can speak of God. Our human flesh becomes eloquent. To speak with human voice of Christ, our hope, is to bring to our mortal human flesh a sense of eternity. We are to become, in Christ, words of hope for all peoples, not just individually, one by one, but as the Body of Christ, the Church. In the Church, our flesh becomes word for the world. In Christ’s own body we now find our voice and our purpose.
Because this child was born, our first word in Christ’s body must be “reconciliation.” The word made flesh reconciles God and his human family and all creation. That is God’s interpretation of the Christmas crib. We cannot celebrate Christ’s birth if we put individuals and entire peoples in boxes in order to dismiss them from our lives. And if we ourselves climb into a box to separate ourselves from others, even the Word made flesh cannot speak to us, cannot transform us, cannot save us.
There was no place, no room for Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the inn of Bethlehem, David’s city, their ancestral home. They were itinerants and the place was full. The constant puzzle at Christmas is: the shepherds heard; why didn’t the innkeeper? The magi, the kings from the East, asked questions and understood; why didn’t King Herod? The puzzle remains unsolved in our own lives: my wife understood, why didn’t my brother? My pastor understood, why didn’t the Cardinal? And the puzzle turns on us: you’re hearing but you’re not listening, why don’t you understand? Sometimes there are very good reasons for not being able to see eye to eye; but far too often an inability to reconcile poisons our lives, both private and public.
A case in point, among many others: a few nights ago, I was in this Cathedral with hundreds of immigrants, many of them without papers, undocumented, here illegally and afraid of being separated from their families by deportation to Mexico and other countries. Immigration policy and practice in our country are thorny topics, with well-meaning people on various sides. They raise questions that cannot, perhaps, find completely satisfactory answers. But the comparison was made in this very church a few nights ago to that inn in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, where there was no room. At the very least, all of us, like Mary at Christmas, must turn these things over in our hearts.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the Church’s word to the world because the Church’s Lord gathers people together to shepherd them. Reconciliation does not mean ignoring what our sins have caused or the facts of the case or legitimate laws. Jesus ignored none of these. But hearing a call to reconcile with our enemies and to become reconcilers for the world does mean reorganizing our lives and our desires, our priorities and our purposes. God makes such conversion possible, but we have to ask. When we do not hear and do not ask, especially when we substitute management for reconciliation, and arbitration for forgiveness, and procedures for love, each of us and the Church herself betray the child in the crib.
This Christmas night, dear friends, we look at the crib together, as Christ’s body, the Church. We hear angels singing and see shepherds adoring. God has spoken and the eternal word is made flesh. It is our turn to speak, to one another and to the entire world. With the courage born of our faith, we proclaim in word and in action, in our very flesh and bone, that Christ our Savior is born. Amen.