Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Mass in the Holy Night
Is. 9:1-6; Ps. 96:1-3, 11-13; Ti. 2:11-14; Lk. 2:1-14
Rejoice, heavenly people! And you on earth, echo their joy! The battle is joined: Emmanu-el, “God With Us,” is born in the flesh! The final contest between good and evil is joined!
Our Gospel reading this morning is from the erudite account in Luke, written by a literate, educated man for a literate, educated, thoroughly cosmopolitan, and skeptical Gentile audience. Luke’s gospel is infused throughout with the ancient arts of rhetoric, grammar, and philosophy. Luke himself was deeply imbued with Platonic concepts of the relationship between the supernatural and the earthly planes, between what was above, and what was below. We see this most clearly in contrast with the account of Our Lord’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written by a Jewish evangelist for a Jewish audience.
Matthew essentially disregards the event that we commemorate tonight/this morning; reporting only the fact of the child’s birth as a terminal point before which Joseph refrained from marital relations with his wife (Mt. 1:25), before segueing into the appearance of the Magi “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” (Mt. 2:1). Luke, on the other hand, treats the Nativity as an event in and of itself – as, indeed, it is – and casts it in Platonic terms. We all know the story, if only from watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on TV every year. Linus’s soliloquy, as he attempts to explain the Nativity to Charlie Brown, is Luke’s account:
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flocks.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to them on whom his favor rests.’” (Lk. 2:8-14)
Dear brothers and sisters, the appearance of the multitude of the heavenly host is nothing less than the unrestrained, jubilant exultation of Heaven at the birth of Heaven’s champion, transcending the Platonic barrier between the higher and the earthly planes. We know, from the Old Testament prophetic accounts of Isaiah and Daniel – to name only two – that the heavenly host praise God unceasingly. That’s Heaven; this is earth, and – according to Plato – ne’er the twain shall meet. Yet in this moment, when God is not merely incarnate – as He has been since the Annunciation, nine months ago – but born in the flesh, completing and perfecting the entry of Heaven’s champion into the arena of combat with Evil, “all Heaven breaks loose,” so to speak, in celebration so cacophonous, so raucous, that it transcends the Platonic barrier between Heaven and earth, and is manifest even to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks.
One could argue that the Platonic barrier is a result of, and a sign of, the alienation of Creation from its Creator in the Fall of Man. Before the Fall, there was no barrier between Heaven and earth; Adam and Eve existed in the same state as the heavenly host. With their eyes of vision, they beheld the beatific vision; the Garden of Eden was, literally, Heaven on earth. After the Fall, the fact of the barrier between Heaven and earth constitutes the brokenness of Creation. These arguments, I think, find firm support in a close reading of both creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2. If these arguments hold, then the heavenly rejoicing at the Nativity of the Lord becomes, from a Platonic standpoint, what orthodox Christian theology asserts that it is: a new Creation, a return to the “status quo ante” when Heaven and Earth were in harmony.
If we see the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as a bridge, or a linkage, between Heaven and Earth – God reigns on His Throne in Heaven; God walks the earth in human form – then we must see, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, the same linkage between the supernatural realm of God, who is “pure Spirit” (cf. Baltimore Catechism of 1891, Lesson Second, A.13 “God is a spirit infinitely perfect,” and A.16b “[God] is a pure spirit …”) and the earthly plane of material existence. Where the first Creation was marred by original sin, the Nativity of God Incarnate at least sets the stage for a new, better Creation, one in which the final, decisive victory over sin and death will be won.
Thus, the Nativity is, at the same time, both the completion of a process within salvation history, and also the beginning of the next stage of the God-initiated and God-mediated process of redemption of the world. The Nativity is not our salvation – salvation is not completed, it is not perfected, by the Nativity. The humility of the manger at Christmas will have to be succeeded by the scandal of the Cross on Good Friday, and the triumph of the grave on Easter Sunday. The Nativity of the Lord is pointless without His Death; His Death would have been impossible without His Nativity. But, by Our Lord’s being born in the flesh, the battle between good and evil is joined. The competitors are “in the ring,” so to speak. The host of Heaven exults, and earth “echo[es] their joyous strains.”
For me, the most lump-in-the-throat-inducing of all Christmas hymns is “O Holy Night,” the second part of the first stanza of which sets the scene of the Nativity in cosmic terms, situated within the sweep of salvation history: “Long lay the world/ In sin and error pining,/ ’Til He appeared,/ And the soul felt its worth./ A thrill of hope,/ The weary world rejoices,/ For yonder breaks/ A new and glorious morn!” A thrill of hope, at which the weary world rejoices – we feel that thrill. Our world lies groaning in sin and error, pining for salvation. We understand. We are there. The anticipation of the hymn is our anticipation.
Reading 1: IS 66:18-21
Responsorial Psalm: PS 117:1, 2
Reading 2: HEB 12:5-7, 11-13
Holy Gospel Reading: Luke 13:22-30
Liturgical colour: Green.
In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus is travelling from town to town, “teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem,” . During these travels, on one occasion, somebody asked him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Let us notice his response. He turns the question around: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Jesus won’t let us leave our religious questions at arm’s length. He always brings the matter directly home to us. “You ask about other people. ‘Will they be saved?’ But what about you? Will you be saved? Take heed, repent and believe, lest you be lost, shut out at the end.”
Jesus does it this way, he turns the question around. He does this many times in the gospels. For examples of thism let us think of the lawyer who wanted to justify himself, and so limit the “Love your neighbour ” commandment, and who asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” But Jesus turned the question around with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and he basically ends up asking the lawyer, “Are you being a neighbour to the person in your path, to the one in need?”
Or let us think of the woman at the well. When Jesus starts to get too close with his knowledge of her sinful life, she tries to deflect the conversation into a discussion about at which mountain to worship. But Jesus doesn’t let the conversation stay in deflected. He wants this woman to repent and to realize her thirst to receive the living water.
Or maybe we can think of the people who ask Jesus, “What about those Galileans who were massacred at the temple?” His response? “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus turns the question around, and he redirects the questioners to their own spiritual need.
So also in our Gospel reading for today. Someone asks Jesus, “Will those who are saved be few?” He answers, “What about you? Will you be saved? Strive to enter through the narrow door.”
And today, In answer to this question, Jesus would say the same thing to each of us: “Will you be saved? God’s Word always is meant to be applied personally, to reach deep into our hearts and into our lives, calling each one of us to repentance and to faith.
Jesus is speaking to you, to me, and to all today when he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” you may well ask, “what’s this business about ‘striving’? I thought salvation was a matter of grace, not works. And what’s this thing about ‘the narrow door’? I thought salvation was open to everyone, open wide, not narrow.”
Well, glad you asked those questions. Let’s deal with them one by one. First, “strive.” “Strive to enter,” Jesus says. How can he say that? Here’s how. Yes, salvation is a matter of grace, God’s free gift in Christ to each and everyone of us. All who are saved are saved purely and exclusively out of the free grace of God in Christ, and not by our own merit in any way whatsoever.
So what does Jesus mean here when he says, “Strive to enter”? I think it’s helpful if we look at this word “strive.” The Greek word here in our text is “agonizomai,” from which we get our English word “agonize.” “Agonizomai” means to strive, to struggle, to exert enormous effort. It’s the word the Greeks used to describe athletic contests for example. And this is the word that’s used here when Jesus says, “Strive,” agonize, “to enter through the narrow door.”
We don’t contribute anything to our salvation by our striving. No, because we have been given this as a free gift. But as we come to Christ and enter through that narrow door, it will involve a struggle. There will be much agonizing along the way.
We all know that living the true Christian life is not easy. There are all these forces which constantly pull against us, to attempt to keep us from entering through that narrow door. We have got Satan, we have the world, and we have our own sinful flesh working against us. It’s like a tag-team wrestling match, and those three are on the other side, tagging in and out, each taking a turn to see if they can defeat us and pin us to the mat. So it is a struggle.
Satan, the world, and the sinful flesh–that’s who we’re agonizing against. Satan will assault us and assail us. He will lure us with temptations. He’ll whisper in our ears lies that say, “God doesn’t love us. Look at what’s happening! Give up.”
Then there’s the world. Listen to the lies of our culture: “There often doesn’t seem to be sin anymore as these things have become commonplace. Everything is seen as OK by the world. We are told by the world that we don’t need to repent. The world questions even if there’s a God out there anyway? As long as you’re a good person, that’s what counts is often the worldly belief.”
And if the issues with Satan and the world aren’t enough, we each have got our own sinful flesh to contend with: “ I know what I want, and I’m going to get it. I won’t listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice telling me otherwise. No, I want to make my own decisions type of thing! And if I’m going into sin, and I know it–well, I’ll just repent later on, I suppose. This way I can keep doing what I want, and I can rationalize it all away.”
So see what we’re up against. It is indeed a struggle, an agonizing, to live as a Christian and to keep the faith. It’s like St. Paul says in Acts 14, “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Being a Christian is not easy. It does call for a constant striving, and so Jesus says here, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”
And then there’s this “narrow door”. What does Jesus mean by that? To say that the door is “narrow” is telling us that there’s just one way in. There are not many doors. There are not many roads that lead to the Kingdom of God. There is only one way. It’s through Jesus, through faith in him alone, and in nothing else! Jesus says in John 14, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Or again, in John 10, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” The narrow door is Jesus!
This door is narrow, is telling us it’s the only one, but this door is indeed always wide open! Jesus has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Trust in him, and we will be saved! This is all because of that “journey to Jerusalem” Jesus was on. There, in Jerusalem, Jesus’ “arms’ length” extended far and wide when he stretched out his arms on the wood of the cross. Those arms, those arms of Jesus, took in all the sins of the world, including yours and mine. Whatever we have done wrong, our sins against God and mankind, the ways we have disobeyed God and hurt the people around us–all these are paid for, paid in full, by Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, dying sacrificially for us, so that we now are forgiven.
And having done this, Jesus rose from the dead, showing us what is in store for us through faith in him. Eternal life! Jesus’ arms are extended to embrace us and to welcome us as a brother or sister in God’s kingdom. The door is open. Enter in!!
There is a great feast waiting for each of us there. And we will be joining many, reclining at the table at the wedding feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end–with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a whole multitude coming from the east and the west, the north and the south. Will you be there, seated with them at the feast of salvation? If we had to answer on the basis of our works or merit, we’d have to say no. But Jesus turns the question around in a good way and answers with a great big yes!!! Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, He wins the victory for us.
“Strive to enter through the narrow door.” Today this narrow door is open, and it is open wide!! Enter through Jesus, and we shall be saved
Brothers and Sisters this is a homily after the Gospel. But sometimes it is necessary for those who are shepherds to give some advice to the sheep who are lost. Take it or leave it.
All throughout the Bible, salvation history is giving us lessons about our place in the world. Some of these lessons are hard to take. Some easy. Today’s lesson is a little of both, I think.
Let me jump to today’s times. If we look around at our town, neighborhood, faith community, there seem to be those who are turning this message a bit on its head. What I mean is that there are some people who are waiting for the shepherd to come and help them. They are in trouble or in difficulty or just angry at what’s happening and they want a strong shepherd, leader, father-figure to fix things. I sometimes wish for this as well.
I am the good shepherd, says the Lord,
I know my sheep, and mine know me.
This is today’s Alleluia from the Apostle John.
“In verdant pastures he gives me repose,” from the Psalm. “In good pastures I will pasture them…” from the First Reading.
Now who is doing this pasturing, feeding, protecting, leading? The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. And we, who are shepherds, are enjoined to go out and find lost sheep and take care of them. Not just the clergy, not just religious…everyone is responsible for the lost sheep. Who among us will not go out and find the sheep that is lost?
But today I fear that some of us are waiting for the shepherd to come and save us. The strong man, the leader, the capable woman, the boss, the politician…somebody who is going to fix the disordered world we find ourselves in today. It’s in every headline, every news story or broadcast, every political missive that comes in our mail or on our smart phone. “We need someone who can fix these problems! We need a leader!”
And then, “I am someone who can fix these problems! Make me your leader!”
You know where this is going. So let me get back to reality. All of today’s readings tell me one thing. I am a shepherd and I need to take care of my sheep. The One I trust, as it says on our coins, is God. There is no message that anyone other than God will save us. No matter what’s going on in our lives, everywhere, not just in the readings, we are urged to take matters into our own hands. Yes we are to rely on God, but here where we are temporarily living, we need to rely on ourselves.
No, I am not speaking as one who thinks there should be no help from others. I am saying that the shepherd is ourselves, not some politician, boss, or pastor. When we begin to take charge of our own lives, with God’s help, then we are fulfilling the lessons of today’s Gospel. We are the sinners. We must repent. And we must tend to our own sheep, our own neighbors.
And if you remember the Gospel of Luke, you know who your neighbor is. Sometimes we are the fallen man needing help, sometimes we are the Samaritan. But Jesus tells us that help is given by those who can and not to be expected from anyone but God.
So maybe I need forgiveness for venturing into a quasi-political diatribe. But today’s readings have led me down that path. Then if I need forgiveness, please forgive. If I need applause, please rejoice.
In all cases, let us rely on the Lord to show us the path. And then let us assist those we find on the path with us.
Lord, Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
Liturgical colour: White.
Reading 1: GN 14:18-20
Responsorial Psalm: PS 110:1, 2, 3, 4
Reading 2: 1 COR 11:23-26
Gospel: LK 9:11B-17
When many think of The body and blood of our dear Lord Jesus Christ, they usually think of the Holy Eucharist we take during Mass. Yes of course the Holy Eucharist is indeed one important part, but is by no means all that today’s Solemnity represents.
In our Catholic Tradition we use the term ‘ The Body Of Christ’ in three totally separate but yet interconnecting ways. The first way we use it is to refer to Our Lord Jesus himself, we stress the full humanity of the Incarnate Son of God. He was formed in his mother’s womb, He was born and grew just as we do. He touched the untouchable leper with his human yet godly hands. He walked through the towns, villages and fields of his native land. He spoke God’s word in a human way. He ate and drank as we do. He suffered like we do. He was tortured, he was crucified for our sins and he was suffered bodily death and burial.
But Our Lord Jesus is no longer dead, He is Risen and is glorified in his body. He is no longer bound by earthly time as we are, and as he himself was in his earthly life. He is alive and with us. He is the Lord actively reigning in his own creation.
The second usage we have is to refer to the humanity, the men and women and children who form the embodying of the life of Jesus in each and every generation, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus, our living Lord, is the Head of his Body the Church. By baptism every Christian has the serious vocation of being the embodying of Jesus in whichever place, situation and time of their own lived life. Through our human bodies we are to make present his kingdom and to reveal his presence. As Christians, we are not here to say that ‘we are here in place of Christ’ but rather that ‘In this place where we are, Christ is also in this place’.
What is true of the individual Christian is even more vibrantly true of the complete Body of Christians who are under the active Headship of the Risen lord Jesus. Every church community, or any other gathering of Christians, has the on-going duty of being an embodying of Jesus in this particular place and in this particular time. It is the individuality of each Christian life that is essential in the building up of the Church and of the fruitfulness of its mission
But how are we to be able to live up to this our calling unless we are constantly nourished by Jesus himself? Hence our third usage of ‘The Body – and Blood – of Christ’ is to refer to the celebration of the Eucharist at the heart of every Christian community. ‘The Eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist’. The Eucharist is medicinal and healing, it is also the power for our mission. Whereas other food is eaten so that it becomes us, with this food which Jesus himself gives us we become him because it is him which we are truly receiving.
So all three meanings come together, three separate but united parts..three in one, in a similar way to the three in one of The Holy Trinity. Our Lord Jesus which we read about in the gospel, truly gives himself to us so that we might become him and we become members one of another in the holy communion and mission of his Holy Church:
As I who am sent by the Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me.
This communion and mission is itself embodied in our Tradition history as the one holy catholic and apostolic church we proclaim in the Creed. We are not just in communion with those we who are currently present in our church or at our work, but with all the men and women whom we will never meet, those who speak in languages which we will never understand, who are praying for us as we are praying for them in the one Body of Christ. And as Jesus is Lord of both the living and the dead, so the dead too form one Body with us.
At the heart of this communion is the sacrifice of Calvary, the broken, tortured, crucified body and the shedding of the blood of Christ’s love for the world. This sacrifice of Calvary can never cease in its power. It eternally throbs through every atom of creation and throughout every second of time. But Jesus’s priestly work continues. He is our Eternal High Priest and the Everlasting Victim for our sins, enabling our salvation. In our sacrifice of the Mass we repeatedly re-enter into Our Lord’s self offering to the Father. In the prayers around the consecration of the Eucharist, we place our prayers of thanksgiving and of petition for the living and the dead into his one Calvary Prayer. Within our worship of the Body and Blood of the Lord present on the altar, we place our own self-offering sacrifice of our Christian bodily life.
I appeal to you dear brothers and sisters by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom 12.1)
All our Christian activity is taken up into the Eucharist just as the Eucharist is at the same point the nourishment of our hope and our courage and our salvation ‘until the Lord returns’. Our daily prayerfulness within Christ includes all creation as we pray ‘in the name of everything under heaven’ and we pray
Father may this sacrifice which has made our peace with you, advance the peace and salvation of all the world.
Reading 1: ACTS 15:1-2, 22-29
Responsorial Psalm: PS 67:2-3,5,6,8
Reading 2: REV 21:10-14, 22-23
Gospel: JN 14:23-29
Liturgical colour: White.
The saying of the peace been spoken in congregations such as in our church masses for thousands of years. The giving of the peace has become a ritual part of our sunday service. Before the Holy Eucharist, the priest blesses the faithful with the peace of the Lord. In many church congregations, the people shake hands at that time of the service and say, “Peace be with you.”
This is an important action, which is much more than merely the giving of a routine or friendly gesture. The giving of a sign of peace has its roots in the words of Jesus on the night before his death, and on the day of his resurrection. He wanted each to know that he was going into death and coming out again to bring us peace, and that all who share the belief in Jesus also share the common peace that our Lord gives.
The ritual of the giving of the peace of the Lord goes back to the very first Easter. Jesus appeared to His Apostles in a locked room and twice said, “Peace be with you.” He then sent them to bring peace to the world by granting the forgiveness of sin in his name. To each of us who know our sins, this greeting is a refreshing shower of the Lord’s grace.
In the early days of the Christian Church the peace was given not as a handshake, but was given as a kiss. This kiss of peace is spoken of at the end of several of the letters of the New Testament. In the early Church all who received and gave the kiss of peace then received the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In the congregation, after those who were still learning the faith were dismissed, the kiss began at the altar and was passed all the way around the church. Only those who received and gave the kiss were welcomed to the Lord’s table.
In a document called the Didascalia from the early third century A.D. it is told of a scene where the kiss of peace suddenly comes to a halt as two people refuse to kiss each other. There was a disagreement. We don’t know what the disagreement was about, but it was probably much like the kind of disagreements we have between people in our own church congregations today. The service then immediately stopped and the presiding minister left the altar and went to where the kiss was blocked. Only after reconciliation of the disagreement did the peace continue on its way around, and only then did the liturgy proceed.
This tells much about how early Christians lived in a congregation. To them the peace of God was a indeed truly a real thing, it was expected to be received by everyone, and to be shared by everyone. There was to be no withholding of forgiveness between the gathered flock. If two people would not share the peace, no one could until those two were brought together.
Does this situation bear any resemblance to our congregations today? It is well known that we have times when we are not always at peace with each other. Within our congregation there have been persons who do not even speak with one another, let alone share the peace. How many of our families have been at odds with one another? And yet week after week we come to the Lord’s table together. Do we know what we are doing? If we want the Lord’s forgiveness and peace but will not forgive our brother or sister in Christ, what can we expect to receive in return from the Lord our God? First we must be at peace with our brothers and our sisters, we need to seek their forgiveness and also to forgive them, and then we may come to the Lord to receive his pardon.
We clearly see this reflected in the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. We ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Jesus taught that we are to forgive our brother or sister not only seven times, but seven times seven times. We are always to forgive those who ask for our forgiveness. To withhold forgiveness is to decline the Lord’s forgiveness for ourselves.
During the Easter season especially, the Christian Church is filled with the peace of the Lord. His sacrificial death for our sins brings peace where there once was only guilt. The news of his resurrection spread among his friends and followers and is remembered in the preaching of the Words of Life that ring in our ears, “He is risen!” The sight of his body, wounded but now healed and filled with glory, points to the future clothing that God will drape upon every person who is truly part of his faithful flock. It is a body that will be raised without any illness, disease, and age. Yes, the time of Easter is one of great joy and peace.
That peace must be shared among us and between us all. Wherever there is any type of division and bad feelings the peace of the Lord must replace that. We cannot truly celebrate the peace of Easter and still be holding a grudge against a fellow brother or sister. If we do, we are only imagining the peace of the Lord rather than truly receiving and giving it. We can shake a hand, we can mumble the words of peace, we can even kiss othere on the cheek, but if there is not full forgiveness in our heart, we do not have the peace that the Lord is giving.
The peace of the Lord is forever. Knowing that we have been completely forgiven by God and that he will never forsake us is powerful knowledge.
It gives strength to everything we do. It doesn’t matter if we are working, studying, raising a family, or lying in bed in a nursing home with no hope of recovery. Knowing that Jesus died and rose to give us eternal life is the most peaceful of all experiences. It gives us the strength to cope with any hardship. It calms the restless soul. It lifts the lowest spirit. It is the only true peace we can ever know in this earthly life.
So when we say the Peace at mass and give each other the sign of the peace of the Lord, are we truly doing it from the depths of our hearts and forgiving each other as Our Lord forgives us, or are we merely doing it out of habit, or routine? Let us look deeply within ourselves to ensure we are doing it with the whole purpose with which the Lord intended.
The peace of the Lord to you all!
Gospel: Luke 6:27-38
Jesus said to his disciples:
To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them,
and lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great
and you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”
As I reflected on today’s Gospel one person came to mind, Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi. He is known for practicing non-violence and liberating India from British rule through his practice of non-violence. He was a Hindu born in 1869 in Gujarat in India. He went to London to study law and was called to the bar. In 1893 he was engaged by a Muslim firm in South Africa for legal work. There were many Indians in South Africa working in the mines but unlike everybody else they had to carry a special pass. While there Gandhi developed his theory of non-violent resistance to injustice. The Indians burned their passes. After that the Indians were all fingerprinted, but through Gandhi’s efforts the South African authorities discontinued fingerprinting them.
I saw the Gandhi movie when it was released some years ago and I watched a video of it again recently. In it a white clergyman, Charlie Andrews, went for a walk one day with Gandhi in South Africa. There were three white young men on the street with stones in the hands. The clergyman suggested they turn back. Instead Gandhi, a Hindu, started quoting Jesus from today’s Gospel to the clergyman, “to the man who slaps you on one cheek present the other cheek too.” (Luke 6:29) The clergyman said this was not to be understood literally, it was metaphorical. Gandhi replied saying he “suspected that Jesus meant one must show courage and be willing to take one blow or several blows to show that you will not strike back nor turn aside. That calls on something in the enemy that makes his hatred for you decrease and his respect for you increase.” It is a scene in the film full of irony. A Hindu quotes today’s Gospel to a Christian clergyman showing the Christian clergyman how Jesus’ teaching is to be lived in daily life. It is easy to resort to violence but the most courageous thing is to respond peacefully.
In 1915 Gandhi returned to India. He was not long back in India when he began taking the lead in the struggle for independence from Britain. He never wavered in his unshakable belief that the best means of achieving results is through non-violence. Whenever the Muslims or Hindus committed acts of violence against each other or the ruling British he fasted until the violence stopped. In 1947 independence finally came but he despaired that the country was split in two, into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Violence followed the independence and he fasted almost to the point of death which brought an end to the violence. During that fast, toward the end of the Gandhi movie, a Hindu came to him and said, “I am going to hell.” Gandhi asked him, “Why?” He said he had killed a Muslim boy. Gandhi replied, “I know a way out of hell. Find a child with no parents and raise it. Only make sure it is a Muslim child and raise it as a Muslim.”
Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 walking through a crowded garden on the way to evening prayers in New Delhi. A famous quotation from Gandhi is, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Non-violence is not being passive. Gandhi would never suggest that you silently put up with injustice. He said injustice must be fought but not with violence. In our Gospel today (Luke 6:27-38) you are not being asked to suffer hurt from anyone but to respect someone even if they hurt you.
You might say to me, “I can accept that non-violence is the best way to achieve results. I can see its logic. But when you say to me to love my enemy that is a step too far.” I would respond in this way. There are many different words used for love in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written but the word for love that Jesus uses in our Gospel passage has nothing to do with being sentimental. Instead the love in our Gospel today means ‘wanting what is best for the other person.’ Jesus explains what he means by that type of love, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” (Luke 6:27-28) Loving our enemies is not avoiding them, or tolerating them or being indifferent to them. Instead it is being positive to them. That is the love David showed to Saul in our first reading (1 Sam 26). He had an opportunity to kill him but did not. From the human point of view he was foolish not to have killed him because Saul wanted to kill him, but David is an example of the love that Jesus talks of in our Gospel.
You might say to me, “It is all very well for you to preach up there about loving your enemy but you don’t have a clue. If you knew what so-and-so did to me you would not be preaching about love of enemies.” This is how I would respond. When the hurt caused to us by the other person is severe we have painful memories afterwards. The first step in forgiving the other person is to heal those painful memories. As you remember the painful event imagine Jesus with you comforting you. Do that for as long or as often as you need. If the hurt is very painful the most courageous thing to do is to seek therapy or counseling of some kind. That is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. When memories are being healed we can forgive.
You might still say to me that I still don’t have a clue and there is no way that you could love your enemy after what has been done to you. If the pain and hurt is as bad as that, and sometimes it is, I would say that forgiving in this situation is a grace or a miracle for which we need to pray. People have forgiven the most extraordinary crimes because they were graced by God to do so. It is not impossible to love enemies. If it were impossible Jesus would not have asked us to do so. If he asked us to love enemies it is certainly possible. So let us pray for the grace to forgive.
If we exact an eye for an eye the whole world will go blind. Jesus asks us to put love into life, to break the spiral of violence and hatred and negativity by putting love into life. Love is the only means to achieve anything. Jesus said to his disciples,
“I say this to you who are listening. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too….Love your enemies. ” (Luke 6:27-29)
Reading 1 ACTS 6:8-10; 7:54-59
Responsorial Psalm PS 31:3CD-4, 6 AND 8AB, 16BC AND 17
Gospel MT 10:17-22
Liturgical colour: Red.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ! We have just celebrated both Christmas eve, and only yesterday, we celebrated Christmas day itself, the Wonderful feast of the birth of Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour. We have reflected upon the little newborn babe in the crib, we have sung “silent night” and “Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing”, amongst other hymns, Carol’s, and no doubt festive non religious tunes of all varieties as well, and we have heard the tidings of peace, joy and salvation to all the world. And suddenly today, in stark contrast, we are clothed in blood-red vestments, we hear of the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus’ warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name’s sake. So, Is there a connection between Christmas and the first Holy martyr Stephen? How are we to make sense of this dramatic sudden contrast? Does it mean we shouldn’t take the beauty and the peace of Christmas too seriously? Does it mean that Christmas is merely a wonderful story, but that the reality is indeed extremely different…?
Not at all!! The long tradition of the Church in celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen the day after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas in any way whatsoever, but to continue it, to strengthen it, and to manifest more clearly in our hearts the important meaning of the Christmas celebration. Jesus became mankind, he became born as an earthly child, so to in in his adult earthly years, to sacrifice himself for us and for our salvation. He wanted as he wants today and always, for us to give him his rightful place within our hearts. So after Christmas, the birth of the small Jesus, we contemplate also the birth of the Church, because Our Lord was and is the Church, he was the church as a child.
Now when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, that cannot remain without effect upon us. When Our Lord and Saviour, who can do all things dwells within us, he transforms our hearts, and thus makes a difference in our attitudes towards one another and toward life. St. Stephen’s life is an excellent example of this. As one of the first deacons he had a double task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, to the “service of love” to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for their preaching. But Stephen also had the gift of preaching, and so he would also perform the ministry of truth. Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to the tasks entrusted into him. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy. Now, we might think that if Stephen, had been far more considerate of the understanding and passion of his Jewish brothers for the oneness of God, and had spoken more carefully about Jesus, that he would not have been stoned, that maybe he could have continued to preach about Jesus, and that by doing this,he could have done more good….
But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and the one truth whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of any violence or hatred, but in instead in the acts of love and self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for us as members of the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ’s message as the truth, and to later become the great Apostle Paul.
St. Stephen is an excellent example to us of true and unwavering faithfulness to Jesus, an example of holding fast to the truth in love. This is an example of the way we all should and want to go within our lives. This path of truth and salvation is not always easy. It is not always easy to avoid deviating from the correct path in one way or another. Sometimes one hears that faithful Christians, in order to be tolerant of others, must abandon the claim to truth, that they must not proclaim or hold the faith as truth or even as true, for that to some, may lead to intolerance and to hatred. But the example of St. Stephen shows us clearly that the world needs the witness of the truth, and that it is possible to preach this truth with steadfast conviction and yet without any violence or hate, but in the acts of love and self-giving.
Let us pray to Jesus, who came into this world as a child for our sakes, that we have the courage and the wisdom to profess our faith in our family life, in our workplaces, in our society, wherever we are, in a convinced and convincing loving manner, as St. Stephen did. Amen.