Brothers Jude, Columba, Gregory, and James Nathaniel celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass at St. John's Episcopal Church in Lakeport, California. The brothers distributed gifts for the children in attendance that evening. Both the children's sermon and the general homily were preached by Br James Nathaniel. The following is a transcript of the homily delivered that evening.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds, “for see—I am bringing 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 the Messiah, the Lord.’ (Luke 2:10-11).
On behalf of my Franciscan brothers, we are delighted to be here celebrating this holy feast of Christmas with you all.
As Franciscans, we hold Christmas with great reverence, perhaps more so than other great feasts of the church. But why? What about Easter or Pentecost or Good Friday?
Why is Christmas the greatest and most splendid of the Church year?
It’s not because of the beautiful songs or carols we hear during the 12 days of Christmas.
It’s not because of the nostalgia Christmas evokes for so many of us--images of white snow, roaring yule-logs, Christmas Story marathons, or images of sleighs and reindeer.
And it’s not because we want to be simply different from the rest of the Church.
But, to know why us Franciscans hold Christmas--the Birthday of our Lord--as the holiest of days, one has to go back to very basic (but by no means simple) question:
Why was Jesus born?
Many of us might answer, “Jesus came to die for our sins” or, “Jesus was born to assuage God’s anger for our sinfulness”
And there’s nothing wrong with holding these beliefs. Many, many good and holy people have held these opinions throughout the centuries. In fact, we hear this sung about during the Great Easter Vigil--one of the most beautiful, moving, and theologically rich celebrations of the Church. There, the deacon sings,
“This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.”
But some in the church have held to an alternative view of things. This minority opinion (which is nearly as old as the church) goes a little something like this:
“God became human because God is Love. God is Infinite Love; Infinite Love is free and infinitely greater than humans or our sin. Saying that our sin would force or cause God to [be born] in order to repair our damage gives sin a power or influence over God
that it does not merit.” (Franciscan Media: “Saint Francis and the Incarnation”)
To put it quite bluntly, God is much more than a divine handyman, fixing our mistakes or repairing our failures. A Franciscan philosopher in the Middle Ages, who held this opinion, insisted Adam and Eve’s sin did not prompt God into action, lest any should be thankful another has sinned. He argued that God’s birth into the human family was complete and unearned, undeserved and (most importantly) intended from the very beginning.
To put it bluntly and somewhat ironically, Christ is our Christmas present.
Christmas is the day when God looked at humanity and repeated the words he spoke eons and eons ago at the creation of the world, saying: “It. is. good.” (c.f. Genesis 1:31).
And with those words, he says to us all today: “You are good. Just as you are.
You are a holy creature, made for holiness, made in the image and likeness of God.
You are worthy of love.
Your existence was intended from the very beginning.
And not only your own life, but the life of all you see around you.
It too has been intended and known as intimately by God just as you are.
Brothers and sisters, because we have been created in love, we are invited, in turn, to love one another.
The night before he died, Jesus asked his disciples, his closest friends, to do one last thing for him. He said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
And, in the Sermon on the Mount, in one of Christ’s most impressive moments as a teacher, Jesus implores his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
To be a Christian, therefore, invites us to hold in reverence all of God’s creation, all that he has so lovingly made. And yes, it includes loving our enemies, those with whom we struggle to love or those who struggle to love us. Maybe that means our bosses. Maybe that means leaders. Our in-laws. Prisoners. Democrats. Republicans. Those with whom we find much agreement and those with whom we find little.
All folks are deserving of the same love Christ showed us. Even as he was nailed to the cross, Jesus prayed for his executors.
As members of God's family, as sons and daughters of the Most High King with Jesus Christ as our brother, we are all invited to the same level of holiness. All of us are called to be saints.
The shepherds in our Gospel today remind us of this universal call to holiness.
You see, because of their constant contact with animals, shepherds in ancient Israel had difficulty observing the purity laws of the Jewish religion. As a result, to be a shepherd meant being associated with ritual uncleanness or impurity. Shepherds were to be avoided rather than embraced.
But today we read how the very first people who heard of Jesus’ birth and worshipped at his feet are the same folks counted as spiritually impure in those days.
If God sent his angels to sing of Jesus’ birth to the “unholy”, the “unclean”, the “impure”, what does that say about our own feelings of worthiness before God and our feelings towards others?
It means that all of us, despite are imperfections, despite the times we have fallen short, despite our own feelings of unworthiness, are still called by God as members of his holy family. No one is excluded from calling God their Savior. There is no one outside of God’s great circle of love.
Again, God looked at humanity and said, “It. is. good.”
God is not here to punish us.
God is not here to see us fail.
God did not create a human race that was sick and command it be well.
God was born in Bethlehem today
because of his overflowing and abundant love for his creation.
Many of you, maybe even those of us that haven’t been able to get to church in awhile, probably know the following Bible verse. It’s one of the most famous Bible passages in any language. Some call it the Gospel in a nutshell. I can still remember sitting at my mother’s feet on the front porch of our house back home in Indiana teaching me these words from the Gospel according to St. John. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).
Sometimes, I wish us Christians would have memorized the very next verse as well--John 3:17. It is there that Jesus goes on to say:
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
If God did not come to condemn the world, then we have no right to condemn our neighbor, and, perhaps even more importantly for some of us: we have no right to condemn ourselves.
It used to be a custom in the Episcopal Church that during the Mass, after the people make a confession of sin, the priest reads to them the so-called “Comfortable Words” and one in particular has always stood out to me in particular. It’s from the New Testament and it reads: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (BCP, p. 332).
Again, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
The God whose coming we celebrate today and throughout this holy season of Christmas is the one that comes to us and meets us wherever we are. We do not have to prove to him that we are good people. Our sin does not preclude us from approaching the altar of God. Jesus Christ said himself, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
Like a boiling pot filled too high to the brim, God’s loved spilled over into our reality, creating all that lives and breaths. We are God’s very own creatures, created in his image and likeness, crafted by his own hand, and known completely and intimately by him. God is not here to take your life as a thief would, but to give you your life back as was always intended.
I’ve been told of a man who, some years ago, came to a monastery to test his vocation as a monk. As he was being interviewed by the older brothers, one monk asked him why he wanted to be one of them. The man said, “I’ve come to give my life to God.” And the older monk looked back at the man and responded, “No, brother. God is here to give your life back.”
God is here to give us our lives back.
Jesus said to his followers, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
In Christ, a new era has dawned. We are all a new people, born and baptized into God’s holy family.
My brothers and sisters, today, we celebrate the greatest gift God ever gave us. For we have received God’s own very self, to dwell with us, to live among us, to live in you, to live in me, to live in each other.
How amazing and wonderful is it to have a God who loved his creation so much, that simply observing them all from the heavens was not enough. How amazing is our God’s love for us that he chose to go one step further by living and walking among us in Jesus Christ.
How truly blessed is this day.
How truly wonderful is this night.
How truly blessed are we to have in our midst the God of our ancestors revealed to us in this very child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
May we, like Mary, treasure all these words and ponder them in our hearts this day and throughout the Christmas season.
And may we, like the shepherds, return to our homes, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen. “For see, to us is born this day in the city of David
a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ Amen.
Brother James Nathaniel, SSF can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org