A Christmas homily by Maxwell E Johnson
Christ is born! Glorify him! “Do not be afraid; for behold – I bring you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.”
While we gather to celebrate not just the birth of Jesus but the revelation of our salvation in human history, there is another Christmas narrative at work in our culture which has nothing to do with this story or with the central reason for this feast.
During this pandemic I have spent too much time watching Lifetime and Hallmark Christmas movies, where this alternative narrative is so clearly expressed. Note some of the common characteristics of these movies: there is a Christmas tree lighting and caroling ceremony at a city wide gathering or a local high school pageant or program which often takes place on Christmas Eve with plenty of hot chocolate or cocoa all around; and while church bells may be heard in the distance, no one seems to belong to or go to church, even at Christmas, even though at least the first verses of religious Christmas carols are known and sung by everyone, who must have learned them somewhere.
In fact, in one I just saw the other night, after the location for the annual Christmas Eve dance had burned down, someone suggested using one of the churches, but, as someone else pointed out, they, the churches, “do their own thing on Christmas Eve.” Even, on occasion, there are literal angels who appear, a tradition started undoubtedly in the famous James Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. But, of course, these angels have nothing to do with the angels who sang the Gloria in excelsis Deo for the Shepherds at Jesus’ birth. These Hallmark and Lifetime Movie angels are more concerned with people’s love lives than they are with the Gospel, including those angels who fall in love with a human and decide at the end to abandon their angelic identity altogether.
Further, along with these occasional generic angels, Santa Claus often plays a major and mysterious role with faith and belief associated with whether or not he is real. But one rarely sees in these movies a Crèche, a nativity scene, or any image of Mary, Joseph, or the Christ Child in the manger. While there are plenty of holiday lights and decorations, bright stars or meteors in the sky, but not the Bethlehem star followed by the wise men.
There is snow (though no one gets much on them), hot chocolate, the obligatory Christmas cookie or gingerbread house baking scenes, cold weather but never cold enough for the main characters to actually button their coats, family gatherings (with any family conflict easily resolved), and, of course, the greatest Christmas miracle of all, romance and the bringing together of the couple who meets in the first few minutes of the movie.
Clearly this is Christmas without Christ, and I would venture to say that this is the Christmas narrative and the hope which the world begins celebrating at Halloween and finishes with the Day after Christmas. Indeed, the twelve days of Christmas end rather than begin on Christmas Day.
But this is not the focus of what we do as Christians, though we may make use of many of these elements in our celebration. For us, Christmas is best summarized in the second reading from Titus at the second Mass of Christmas:
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
The “water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” “justified by God’s grace.” This reading from Titus is precisely what Christmas reveals and celebrates, the “water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” and our “justification by God’s grace.” For this is why Christ was born in the first place.
You see, this solemn feast of Christmas, like all of the feasts of the liturgical year, celebrates precisely our baptismal identity in Christ as his people, his Body in the world. Christmas is not really about Baby Jesus’ Birthday or about Baby Jesus in the manger “back there and then,” in some “once upon a time” place, but about our baptismal birth in the adult Christ, the crucified and risen Christ today as He is born anew in us. Yes, Hodie Christus natus est! Today Christ is born! But He is born in us! through the Spirit who brings the glad tidings of salvation, the one salvation, to us now.
This reading from Titus was already part of the Christmas readings in the liturgy of mid-fifth century Rome, where St Leo I, then bishop of Rome, can say in one of his Christmas Day sermons:
“Be conscious, O Christian, of your dignity! You have been made partaker of the divine nature; do not fall again by a corrupt manner of life into the beggarly elements above which you are lifted. Remember whose Body it is of which you are a member, and who is its Head. Remember that it is he who has delivered you from the power of darkness and has transferred you into God’s light and God’s kingdom. By the sacrament of baptism, you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not cast away this great Guest by evil living and become again a servant of the devil. For your freedom was bought by Christ’s own blood.”
It is Christmas and like St. Paul, Leo speaks about baptism into Christ, about Christ’s own blood buying our freedom on the cross, and about our identity and dignity in Christ. Leo can do that because Christmas celebrates the entire mystery of our redemption in Christ. Christmas celebrates the manifestation, the revelation, the coming of human Salvation into our own flesh and blood human history. Christmas celebrates, as Robert Taft, S.J. used to say, the “whole schmear” and every feast celebrates that as well.
We might view the story in different ways, through different narratives, including the infancy narrative of Jesus’ birth, but at the center is always the cross and resurrection and gift of the Spirit, the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation, his dying, and his rising for our life and salvation. And that incarnation, that enfleshment of God among us continues still today. For, today this one, who is born in Bethlehem, a city whose name means “house of bread,” still comes to us clothed in Bread to be housed within us by the Sacrament of his enfleshment with us and in so doing calls us from death to life, fear to joy, and from darkness in his own great and marvelous light.
This Christmas miracle is so much more than what Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies tell us that Christmas is. Not any of those sentimental warm mushy things but Christ, born in poverty, not in some generally white-middle class-light-snow-falling Christmas village. But Christ, born, crucified and risen for you, the Savior of the world!
“Do not be afraid; for behold – I bring you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.” Christ is born! Glorify him.
Dr. Max Johnson teaches liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.
 Leo, Homily on the Lord’s Birth, PL 54: 190; ET from Benedictine Daily Prayer, 2nd edition, ed Maxwell E. Johnson and the Monks of Saint John’s Abbey (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2015), 54.