This is my first Christmas as Archbishop of Baltimore and it is a moment to say how grateful I am for the warm welcome I have received from all of you and from all parts of the Archdiocese. Like most people, I look forward to Christmas joy and to all the festivities that are part of the Christmas spirit … Yet doesn’t it often happen that these same festivities have a way of highlighting those things in our lives that we wish we could change …
If we could do so, all of us would surely undo the tragic events that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14th when so many innocents and dedicated educators were taken from us. Newtown was part of the Diocese of Bridgeport I had served for the past 11 years; I visited there often and confirmed at St. Rose of Lima Parish three times a year, and had the joy of coming to know so many families in Newtown. Msgr. Weiss, the Pastor of St. Rose and a native of Baltimore, is a wonderful priest; and I ordained the two young priests who serve with him. So, like every parent & grandparent, I share personally in the deep sadness of grieving families, a grieving parish, and a grieving community.
A few days ago, a friend of mine from Connecticut commented that the events in Newtown have cast a pall over Christmas – that it won’t be as joyous as usual because of what transpired there. But I wonder if he got it backwards. It isn’t Newtown that casts a pall over Christmas. It’s Christmas that sheds its light on all the events of our lives, great and small.
II. Where Is Your God?
Whenever some terrible tragedy strikes, people often ask, “Where was God?” We may have asked the same question, not only about Newtown but also about many of the things we struggle with each day. Christmas doesn’t offer us a glib answer to that question but rather a profound answer that cannot be reduced to a slogan or sound bite. To experience joy this Christmas or really any Christmas, we have to dig deeper.
In olden times, some imagined that the Messiah would come as a mighty conqueror. They came to expect a Savior of great majesty and power, an earthly ruler, a military hero, a powerful judge, a political force like no other. Instead, the Messiah slipped into the world as a helpless baby, born in the poverty of a stable, asleep in a manger, as His mother Mary and His foster-father Joseph kept watch. Yes, the heavens sang His praises and those whose minds and hearts were prepared understood that the time of God’s visitation had arrived. But most of the world did not notice the birth of the Messiah who would stand before Pontius Pilate & say, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
“Where is God?” we ask even as he makes Himself so unfailingly available to us. No, He has come not as a mighty ruler imposing law and order, but rather to evoke from us a response of love … That is why the Father sent His only begotten Son into the world. By the power of the Holy Spirit, He becomes the Son of Mary, and enters the world as a little baby. Thus did the Word become flesh and dwell among us! To borrow a phrase from Pope Benedict XVI, “Now the Word [of God] is not simply audible, not only does it have a voice, now the Word has a face: one which we can see – that of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The name of the Baby in the manager is “Emmanuel” – “God with us!” Nothing breaks down fear and evokes so much love as a Baby. Nothing brings us together like our children whom we love so much and in whom we place so many of our hopes. So this is how God is with us: He became one of us, He became a child. And even though the birth of Jesus took place over 2,000 years ago, we still say that he was born “this day” in Bethlehem – for the birth of the Son of God as a baby permeates human history and tonight it must permeate our lives as well.
III. Born This Day: God Available To Us
St. Theresa of Avila, the great master of prayer, used to say that she found God amid the pots and pans. She could say this, of course, because she had already found God in the pages of Scripture, in the Mass, in her life of intense, daily prayer. In touch with God, she could sense his presence as she was doing kitchen duty … and not only in the kitchen but indeed in the suffering and hard work of reforming the Carmelite Order in the 16th century.
And this is what we need to know this Christmas night: the child born in Bethlehem still comes to us today: in the truth, the love, the smallness of the Eucharist, every Sunday, every day; in the whispering voice of the Holy Spirit when we read and pray the Scriptures; He is with us in the heart of our homes, in our love for our families, in our relationships with others, in our daily decisions. He is with us even when we become estranged from our God & from one another, He is calling us from within with the persistence of a lover. Emmanuel – God is with us in all these things. He created us in freedom so that we could freely love His Father and one another, and so he does not stay the hand of those who choose to do otherwise. The Christ-Child was born not to avert all the suffering we impose on ourselves but to ensure that sin and death do not have the last word about human history, to ensure that sin and death do not have the last word in our lives. The Son of God was sent into the world to conquer sin & death with love: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the crucified Savior who rose from the dead.
In this Year of Faith, perhaps the events at Newtown have tested our faith or perhaps our faith has been strengthened by the outpouring of faith and love that we have witnessed in that community. Perhaps the best way to embrace the Child in the Manager this night in faith and love is to embrace in love those suffering families and indeed all those who are in need. If he were here, Msgr. Weiss would tell us that the community at Newtown doesn’t need more flowers or letters or phone calls – it is inundated in those things. Those families need our prayers and our love more than anything else. One of the ways to express your love is to go onto the Archdiocesan website where you can take part in an Archdiocesan spiritual bouquet – you can offer Masses, prayers, and good deeds so that those families and the whole community can experience some measure of consolation and healing not only at Christmas but in the weeks and months ahead. Already there has been a wonderful response to this request for prayers and I would be grateful, if you haven’t already done so, to add your prayers and good wishes for the people of Newtown.
IV. Believing in Love
Let us give the last word to Pope Benedict XVI who has called us to embrace the truth of our faith in love: “The Word became flesh!” The light of this truth is revealed to those who receive it in faith, for it is a mystery of love. Only those who are open to love are enveloped in the light of Christmas. If the truth were a mere mathematical formula, in some sense it would impose itself by its own power. But if the Truth is Love, it calls for faith, for the “yes” of our hearts.”
May we allow the Child in the manger to open our hearts to that love which is above every other love, to that love which is stronger than sin and more powerful than death. Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!