Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Homily for Christmas Eve by Father Lee Nelson

“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”

From the Gospel according to Saint John, I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.


It seems that almost every year, around Thanksgiving, the assault on Christmas begins.

Some have referred to this as the “War on Christmas.” There is this great fear that retailers are going to ruin Christmas forever if they have their way. And – if it’s not the retailers, well then it’s the ACLU or some other group hell-bent on despoiling our sacred feast.

There’s also the great scandal of secular seasonal greetings. No longer can one say “Merry Christmas” in the public square without drawing at least some indignation from an increasingly secularized public. Then the “almighty they” decided it would be best to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.” In a culture in which very little is sacred, very little is holy, this is yet another victory for Christ and His Church, for “Happy Holidays” means “happy holy days.” It is a recognition that there is something visibly special about these days.

But, the two skirmishes in the “War on Christmas” in the media this year were particularly notable.

The first involved a rabbi and an airport. The second involved a growing rash of abductions nationwide.

The first began when Rabbi Eleazar Bogomilsky of Seattle complained that there wasn’t a Menorah next to the Christmas trees at Sea-Tac Airport. Rather than granting his request, the airport simply took down all nine of their Christmas trees during the graveyard shift on a Saturday morning.

The Rabbi’s response was that this was simply not what he had asked for – and so upon hearing that he would drop a law suit against the airport, the airport put the trees back up, this time 16 of them. The concern was that the Jewish community would be seen as “the Grinch that stole Christmas.”

And now we hear from Olympia, Washington, in the statehouse, that a Menorah would be acceptable to the state, as well as Christmas trees, but a Nativity crèche would not be, as it would give a stronger impression of Government endorsement of religion. My guess is that they are concerned about visible images making rather blunt statements about invisible truths.

In the realm of nativity scenes, this year, there has been a rash of abductions. This brings us to the second news item.

All over the country, and even around the world, Jesus is being kidnapped and held hostage – his body snatched from nativity scene mangers, and being replaced with items such as beer cans and stuffed-monkeys. Sometimes, the mangers are simply left empty, but from Portland, Oregon, to San Jose California, to Salt Lake City, to Haltom City, to Alabama, to Upstate New York, Jesus is being stolen.

Some of these stories are brutal attacks against Jesus Christ and the Faith of the Church while some err on the side of comedy.

One news story had an account of a Jesus figurine being stolen a year ago, and returned early this month with a photo album of his exciting year of road-trips and camping trips, being buckled into a baby seat, eating ice-cream, and even making brownies. The family, of course, was glad to have their Jesus back.

But, why the thievery?

Maybe its just a big practical joke. But, maybe there is a more sinister motive. Perhaps the Washington statehouse is right. Perhaps the Christmas crèche is more than a set of figurines – perhaps it is a visible representation of great truth, even an exclusive truth – and therefore a scandal.

All this is to say that there is a great scandal when the invisible becomes visible.

Saint Boniface, an English missionary to the Germans in the 8th Century, is said to have chopped down an oak tree sacred to German pagans as they were preparing to make human sacrifice. As the tree split, inside was an evergreen sapling. Boniface said that it was the Tree of the Christ Child, pointing to heaven, and unlike the oak – always green.

He told these new converts to decorate and adorn the trees, bringing them into their homes to point them toward the heavens.

Later, it became understood that the red sap of the trees was symbolic of Christ’s blood.

If a Christmas tree were merely a tree, and not a symbol of religious truth, especially that of Jesus Christ, then there would be no scandal.

If the nativity scene were merely an artistic representation of some folks bundled up in some barn, and not representative of the birth of the Incarnate Son of God, the ACLU wouldn’t have anything to complain about, and there wouldn’t be the usual vandalisms and thefts.

Yes, it is a great scandal for the invisible to become visible.

Great enough of a scandal that a whole culture war is necessary, even if it is a mere “War on Christmas.”

When the invisible becomes visible, the prevailing notions of reality are challenged. No longer can one hide under the assumption that all that exists is matter alone – what can be touched, heard, perceived.

We Christians proclaim the invisible world when we proclaim that God is the creator of all things – things seen and things unseen. The Scriptures proclaim to us that the world of the invisible is eternal, and if it is eternal, surely it is greater than our visible world.

It is a world full of angels and creatures beyond explanation, but more so, it is a world of truth. For in this invisible world, there is no question, no shadow of doubt, it is a world which recognizes the truth of God to the point where not even demons fail to acknowledge it.

In the American mind, however, this world of invisibility is far, far away, in some remote heaven. It is so far away that it would take a great journey across space and time to make it here to the visible realm. Heaven is far. God is remote. Angels are “out there” or “up there.”

What we fail to realize is that the invisible is, in fact, not far away at all. It is merely hidden, shrouded or veiled, as it were, in mystery. It is no further from us than the thickness of a sheet of paper.

The great invisible world makes itself known to us in the visible by means of sacraments – outward and visible signs of what is inward and spiritual.

These are the breakthroughs, the tears in the curtain between two worlds, though which we see and perceive those eternal and invisible realities – even the invisible God Himself.

And we need these breakthroughs – they are the very substance of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The invisible world yearns to be seen, yearns to be revealed. God Himself desires the same. But, He is completely invisible and more than that – he is too glorious to be seen. Even the highest rank of angels – the seraphim, hide their faces from His presence. To see God would mean our certain death, especially considering our sinfulness.

But salvation consists in faith – it consists of a vision of God who is invisible, a vision which comes by the piercing of that veil between our two worlds, yes a sacrament.

The Church teaches, without equivocation, that Jesus himself is the sacrament par excellence, that there has never, in the history of the world been a better means to perceive invisible truth and reality than Him.

As Saint Paul writes to the Colossians: “He is the image (or icon) of the invisible God.”

Tonight, beloved, we gather to behold the most perfect revealing of “things not seen” that has ever been.

And Saint John writes to us this night – “No one has ever seen God;

The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”

God is invisible.

He is also unknowable.

Yet, he makes known through the created order His very nature, and through His very Son – grace and truth.

Saint John also says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; We have beheld his glory.”

The scandal of the baby in the manger is that the Church makes the claim that He is grace and truth incarnate – that he is the Son of God who has come into the world, robed in human flesh.

On this night – the scandal is that all the rules are now broken – that the curtain between the visible and the invisible is now more thin than ever.

The angels hover – even in this very church, to look upon the Christ-child – they in their world of invisibility, we in our world in visibility.

On this holy night – we see God – not through a veil, not shrouded in smoke, not hidden in a burning bush, but in the face of a tiny baby boy. We hear Him as well, not in a voice from a cloud, or in the message of an angel, but in the cries of a child.

The glory of God falls upon mankind for the first time in ages and ages, not upon priests in a Temple, not upon prophets, but upon shepherds.

The rules are broken.

God in human flesh has been made known in Bethlehem.


“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”

And this night, we in the Church behold Him, adore Him, and sing to Him. This is a cause for celebration.

For the veil has been taken away, the curtain torn – God has made himself known to us, taking upon himself our nature.

Piercing the darkness comes a tiny baby boy.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

… those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.”

Light enough even to see God, to see His face.

There will be more.

This baby boy will grow up, he will live, he will teach, he will die.

But, for tonight – this is the true light, the light that enlightens every man, that has come into the world. To all who receive Him, who believed in His name, says Saint John, he gives the power to become children of God.

Children, born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

Receiving the child Jesus makes us children of the Most High.

And this is little more than the salvation of our souls.

To see God.

Come let us adore Him.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. AMEN.


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