Open Your Heart to the Child Who is Love
December 25, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Christmas Day
Reading I (Isaiah 9:1-6) Reading II (Titus 2:11-14)
Gospel (St. Luke 2:1-14)
In the first reading this morning from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear about how every cloak rolled in blood will be burned and every boot that tramped in battle is going to be destroyed, and that the pole of the taskmaster and the rod upon their shoulders is going to be broken and destroyed – all of these things that usually come with battle, the war that has to go on to be able to free slaves, to be able to end things and bring about peace. As this all builds up, one would expect that we are going to hear about some kind of battle that is going to be happening. Instead, Isaiah suddenly turns it around and says, “Because a child is born for us, a son is given us; and on his shoulder dominion rests.” So it is not so much a matter of any kind of physical battle, but rather, it is a spiritual battle, and it is by faith in this little, tiny Baby who is born in Bethlehem that one is going to be able to destroy the one who has put his yoke and his chains about us, who has put the pole upon our shoulders, who has beaten us with his rod – and that is Satan himself. The one thing Satan cannot handle is humility. Satan lives and thrives on pride. And so God, in His humility, comes down to us in the form of a tiny, helpless baby. He comes to us just as one of us, totally dependent upon His mother, and yet with the joy that a baby brings. Anyone who would see Him and have faith would understand the freedom that comes only from Him.
In looking upon this little Baby in the manger, the shepherds were also able to discern something that did not seem to make any sense to them. The sign that was given to them was one that would be highly unusual: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Swaddling clothes were the clothes of the dead, the strips of cloth that would be wrapped around the body of the dead the way that Lazarus, when he was in the tomb, was all wrapped up. And this is the way Our Lady clothed her Son. Now one could try to explain that away and say, “Considering it would have been cold, it probably was the most reasonable way to wrap up a child to make sure that he stayed warm.” But when we look at it, we can understand it from a different perspective; that is, the very purpose of the birth of this Child was to die. He came into this world and is born for us so that He could die for us. And right from the very first moment of His appearance on earth, with the newness of life and the joy that a baby brings, there is at the same time this tinge of sorrow, there is this irony that is present right from the very beginning. There is new life and it points to death. Yet each one of us knows fully well that it is His death that brings about life.
The Church, in the readings over the last few days, talks about how our salvation is near at hand and how in the Birth of Christ we are saved. Yet at the same time, we all know it is not in His Birth that we are saved, but rather it is in His Death and Resurrection that we are saved. But there would be no Passion, Death, or Resurrection without His Birth. And so the beginning of our salvation has come in that God is willing to take on our human nature and He is willing to be born in time. The One who is outside of time, the One who created time is born in time. The One who created the Blessed Virgin Mary became created within her. The One who is uncreated from all eternity took on a created nature and was born for us. The One who has no beginning suddenly has a beginning in time. The One who is immortality Himself came into this world with a mortal human nature so that He could die. It makes no sense if we just try to look at it on the natural level. It is only with the eyes of faith that we can understand the mystery that is being unfolded before us this very day.
There is great cause for rejoicing as there is with the birth of any child: the miracle of a baby, the beauty of the absolute innocence of that little soul, the joy of the face that one beholds in a little child. Yet, with this Child, there is greater cause for rejoicing. Even though when a child is born family and friends rejoice with the parents, the child is born to those parents. This Child, however, is different. He was certainly given for His mother, but He was given for each one of us. Each one of us then shares in the joy that is Our Lady’s. She alone, of course, had the privilege of being able to carry Him in her womb and to give birth to the Savior of the world, but each one of us, like Saint Joseph, is able to share in the joy. Saint Joseph, knowing that the Child was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, knew fully well that he was brought into the mystery of the Incarnation but he himself was not part of it. So it is with each of us. We can look at the crèche and there we see Mary and Joseph: Mary, whose fiat nine months earlier has now borne fruit and given birth to God; and there is Saint Joseph, the just man, adoring the Child on behalf of each one of us.
Mary, His mother, extends Him with great joy to the poor, humble shepherds who came to worship Him – and she does the same thing for each one of us. We come before Him with the same kind of humility as the shepherds and it is important for us to recognize that it was to the shepherds that God first revealed this mystery. Shepherds, in the ancient world, were the lowest of the low; they were the unskilled laborers; they were the ones who were at the bottom of the pile in the societal pecking order. And yet in God’s mercy, He sent His Son to be a shepherd, the Shepherd of our souls. He turns then to the lowly and to the humble, to the ones who would be the most apt to recognize the grandeur of the mystery that was taking place. They came at the message of an angel to be able to see this Baby who looked just like any other human baby, but they understood that this was the all-powerful God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who has now become created in His mother.
And now the angel speaks to each one of us and calls each one of us to come and behold the glory of God that is shining on the face of a newborn Baby, to behold His glory, the glory of an only Son, and to be able to understand that in this Baby we have freedom for our souls. Indeed, the rod has been broken and the pole on their shoulder has been smashed if we are willing to accept Who this Child is and the very purpose of His birth. Saint Paul, in the second reading, tells us, “The grace of God has appeared to us.” We look upon the face of God in this little Child as we still await the coming in glory of our Savior in His second coming, but that does not in any way diminish the glory of the first coming. He is the grace of God, because grace is the life of God and in Him the fullness of grace resides. And so in this Child, every single grace that will be given to every human being throughout all of history is found. In this Child is contained all of the grace that will ever be given to the world. That is our salvation: the grace of God given in Jesus Christ, born in the most humble of circumstances, born for the purpose of dying, so that those who had chosen death would be able to have life.
It is this irony of the mystery of the Incarnation and the Birth of Our Lord that we need to meditate upon. As I have mentioned before on Christmas, God in His infinite wisdom not only gives to us these rather ironic sorts of twists that take place in this mystery, but in His infinite wisdom He also gives to us a way to be able to open our hearts. Even the most closed and hardened heart has to open in the presence of a baby. A baby is vulnerable and harmless. A baby is nothing but love. And it does not matter how hardened a sinner we might become, when we look upon a child our hearts melt and they open, suddenly we become transformed in the presence of an infant. We start making funny noises that we would never, ever make in any other circumstance, and everybody thinks it is pretty wonderful rather than thinking we are strange making strange noises. We act in ways that we would never act and nobody even thinks twice about it because it is a baby. God has come to us in an irresistible form, in the form of a newborn infant, and we cannot help but to humble ourselves before His humility. We cannot help but to open our hearts in the presence of His vulnerability. We cannot help but to prostrate ourselves before His divine condescension.
God, in His all-powerful and infinite knowledge, has presented Himself in a way that is completely vulnerable and helpless so that we will not be able to resist the gift which is given. Open your hearts to Jesus, allow Him to enter in. Salvation, grace, redemption – these are things we can talk about but we cannot see, but they are now seen in human form. Beyond this, Jesus did not merely give Himself to us as a little baby to look at, but He continues to give Himself to us in the Eucharist. It is the same Person who was born in Bethlehem; it is the same Person who died on Calvary; and He comes to us now in the Blessed Sacrament - Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, the fullness of His Person – to give Himself to each one of us. And He asks that we will have, as we come forward to receive Him, the same attitude and disposition as the shepherds, the same humility and openness of heart that we have in the presence of a little baby, that we would come to Him now and open our hearts to receive Him with the greatest of love, with the greatest of humility, with the greatest vulnerability, so that our hearts, hardened by sin, will melt in the presence of this Infant, that they will open in the presence of this tiny Child and allow Him to enter in and transform our hearts so that He – Who is God from all eternity but took on our human nature and was born in time – will now take us – who are human by nature and born in time – and transform us to share in His divine nature and enter into eternity. That is the gift He is offering: to break the bondage of sin and give us freedom for our souls, to take our arrogance and smash it and give us hearts that are humble, open, and free of sin. The grace of God has appeared, the salvation of our great Savior, and He has appeared in an irresistible form. Open your hearts to receive the Child that our Blessed Mother holds out to each one of us. Open your heart to receive the grace and the salvation of God given to us in Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.