Saturday, December 31, 2005

Homily on the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God by Pope John Paul II January 1, 2003



Wednesday, 1 January 2003

Brothers and Sisters,

1. "The Lord bless you and keep you.... The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace" (Nm 6,24.26): this is the blessing that the priests of the Old Testament gave the Chosen People on the great religious feast days. Today, the ecclesial community listens to it again, while it asks the Lord to bless the new year we have just begun.

"The Lord bless you and keep you". In the face of the events that unsettle the planet, it is very clear that only God can touch the depths of the human soul; his peace alone can restore hope to humanity. We need him to turn his face towards us, to bless us, to protect us and give us his peace.

For this reason, we must begin the new year by asking him for this precious gift. Let us do so through the intercession of Mary, Mother of the "Prince of Peace".

2. At this solemn celebration I wish to address a respectful greeting to the distinguished Ambassadors of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See. I also warmly greet my Secretary of State and the other heads of the departments of the Roman Curia, with a special greeting for the new President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I would like to express my gratitude to the Council for their daily work to foster peaceful coexistence among the peoples, along the lines of the Messages for the World Day of Peace. This year's Message commemorates Pacem in terris on the 40th anniversary of its publication. The content of this authoritative and historical document of Pope John XXIII is a "permanent mandate" for believers and people of good will in this time burdened with tensions, and also rich with many positive expectations.

3. When Pacem in terris was written, there were menacing clouds on the horizon and the nightmare of an atomic war hung over humanity.

My venerable Predecessor, whom I had the joy of raising to the honours of the altar, was not overcome by the temptation to discouragement. On the contrary, relying on his firm confidence in God and on the capacity of the human heart, he forcefully pointed out "truth, justice, love and freedom" as the "four pillars" on which to build a lasting peace (cf. Message for World Day of Peace, 1 January 2003, n. 3).

His teaching remains timeless. Today, as then, despite the serious, repeated attacks on the peaceful, solidary harmony of peoples, peace is possible and necessary. Indeed, peace is the most precious good to ask of God and to build with every effort, by means of concrete gestures of peace on the part of every man and woman of good will (cf. ibid., n. 9).

4. The Gospel passage we have just heard takes us back in spirit to Bethlehem, where the shepherds went to adore the Child on Christmas night (cf. Lk 2,16). How can we not go in spirit with fear and sadness to visit that holy place where Jesus was born?

Bethlehem! The Holy Land! The tragic, enduring tension this Middle Eastern region lives in, makes the search for a positive solution to the fratricidal and senseless conflict which has shed blood for too long, more urgent. It requires the cooperation of all who believe in God, who know that true religious feeling far from setting individuals and peoples against one another, urges them to build together a world of peace.

In my Message for today's World Day of Peace, I wished strongly to repeat: "Religion has a vital role in fostering gestures of peace and in consolidating conditions for peace". And I added that "it exercises this role all the more effectively if it concentrates on what is proper to it: attention to God, the fostering of universal brotherhood and the spreading of a culture of human solidarity" (ibid., n. 9).

Faced with today's conflicts and the threatening tensions of the moment, once again I ask you to pray to find the "peaceful means" for a solution inspired by "a desire for genuine and constructive dialogue", in harmony with the principles of international law (cf. ibid., n. 8).

5. "God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law ... so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4,4-5). In the fulness of time, St Paul recalls, God sent into the world a Saviour, born of a woman. Thus the new year opens under the sign of a woman, under the sign of a mother: Mary.

As a spiritual continuation of the Great Jubilee, whose echo has not died away, last October, I chose to proclaim the Year of the Rosary. After having vigorously presented Christ as the only Redeemer of the world, I wished to mark this year with Mary's special presence. In the Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary), I wrote that "the Rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace, since it consists in the contemplation of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the one who is "our peace' (Eph 2,14). Anyone who assimilates the mystery of Christ - and this is clearly the goal of the Rosary - learns the secret of peace and makes it his life's project" (n. 40).

May Mary help us discover the face of Jesus, Prince of Peace. May she support and accompany us in this new year; may she obtain for us and for the whole world the desired gift of peace! So be it!

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Origin of Silent Night - A Christmas Carol is Born

The Origin of Silent Night - A Christmas Carol is Born

by Fr. Bernard Heffernan

For 22 years I looked after the spiritual needs of senior citizen homes. Volunteers helped. Among them was Anna Cairnduf, a lady who hails from a mountain town in Austria. She's the grand niece of Father Joseph Mohr, the writer of the Christmas carol "Silent Night" which for a long time was ignored. Why?

Great music is expected from great cities and great Cathedrals but hardly from a poor, cold, drafty little mountain church, where a few days before Christmas in 1818, a hungry mouse chewed through the bellows of the old organ, silencing it. Oh no! No music for Christmas.

Nothing good was expected from the mountains and less was expected from pathetic Father Mohr. He was not a bright light in the diocese. He would never make a monsignor, hardly even a pastor. The bishop sent him into the mountains to help a stern old pastor, who at the sight of his new helper became even sterner.

At the church, the day before Christmas Eve, organist Franz Gruber arrived and discovered the damaged organ. Exasperated, he pressed the keys and pumped the bellows. Not a sound! He and Father Mohr pondered, "What could be done to save Christmas?" Shyly the priest withdrew from his pocket a paper and showed him the words he had scrawled in German, "Silent Night, Holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild. Sleep in Heavenly Peace!"

Franz Gruber was captivated by the simplicity of the song, that told so well the wondrous story. Hastening home he fingered his violin and wrote the music so he and Father Mohr could harmonize.

Come midnight Mass, the arriving parishioners and lumber jacks, trudging through the snow, were disappointed when they heard there was no organ. No music! Sterner than usual the pastor began the Mass and delivered his Christmas sermon.

Then to everyone's surprise at the front of Church, appeared six children in colourful dress and bright red bows, flanked by Father Mohr and Franz Gruber playing his violin.

There in that little church in the mountains was heard the world premier of "Silent Night." The surprised parishioners didn't know what to think. But one glance at the angry pastor told them. After Church the departing faithful quickly bid Christmas wishes and "Good Night". No one mentioned the song. One polite lady said the children's clothes were pretty. That was all.

Perhaps the performance of Silent Night was the last straw, causing the pastor to complain to the Bishop. Whatever! By the time the snow had gone and Spring had come, and the organ repair man arrived with horse and cart, Father Mohr had long vanished like a log round the bend of the river.

Up in the choir loft, the organ man found the scrap of paper on which was written "Silent Night". He carried it out of the mountains to the world, to its cathedrals, music halls and palaces. Authorship was attributed to famous composers like Bach and Beethoven. Only later did the world learn of the humble authors.

Now all the names of other Austrian Priests and organists of the time have vanished. But the names of Father Joseph Mohr and organist Franz Gruber live on in a museum built in their honour and in the beautiful Christmas song, sung in 200 languages every Christmas around the world - "Silent Night"

In their Austrian homeland, in the 1800's on Christmas Eve, when lumberjacks were gathering and `Stille Nachte' rang out through the Alpine mountains, here in Canada through forested, snow covered hills, across frozen lakes, lumberjacks also strode to church, summoned by the bells, organs and the beautiful Christmas carol, "Silent Night".

Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God by Pope John Paul II January 1, 2002

Pope John Paul II - Homily at the Mass of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God - 35th World Day of Peace - 1 January 2002

1. "Hail, holy Mother! The Child to whom you gave birth is the King of heaven and earth for ever" (cf. Entrance Antiphon).

With this ancient greeting, today, the eighth day of the Octave of Christmas and the first of the year 2002, the Church greets the Blessed Virgin Mary, invoking her as Mother of God.

In her the eternal Son of the Father took our very flesh and through Her became "son of David and son of Abraham" (Mt 1,1). Thus Mary is his true Mother: the Theotokos, Mother of God!

If Jesus is Life, Mary is the Mother of Life.
If Jesus is Hope, Mary is the Mother of Hope.
If Jesus is Peace, Mary is the Mother of Peace, Mother of the Prince of Peace.

Entering the new year, let us ask this holy Mother to bless us. Let us ask Her to give us Jesus, our full Blessing, in whom the Father blessed all history once and for all, making it become the history of salvation.

2. Hail, holy Mother! I have placed The World Day of Peace under Mary's motherly gaze. Let us reflect on peace in this climate of widespread anxiety on account of the recent tragic events that have shaken the world. But although it may seem humanly difficult to look to the future with optimism, we must not give in to the temptation to despair. On the contrary, we must work for peace courageously, certain that evil will not prevail.

The light and hope for this commitment come to us from Christ. The Child born in Bethlehem is the eternal Word of the Father who became flesh for our salvation, he is "God-with-us", who brings with him the secret of true peace. He is the Prince of Peace.

3. With these sentiments, I respectfully greet the distinguished Ambassadors to the Holy See who have wished to take part in this solemn celebration. I warmly greet the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal François Nguyên Van Thuân, and all who work with him, thanking them for all they do to spread my annual Message for the World Day of Peace, whose theme this year is: "No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness".

Justice and forgiveness: these are the two "pillars" of peace, and I wanted to draw attention to them both. Between justice and forgiveness there is not opposition but complementarity, because both are essential for promoting peace. Indeed, far more than a temporary ceasefire, this is the deep healing of the wounds that weary souls (cf. Message, n. 3). Only forgiveness can quench the thirst for revenge and open hearts to an authentic and lasting reconciliation among peoples.

4. Today we turn our gaze to the Child whom Mary holds in her arms. In Him we recognize the One in whom mercy and truth meet, justice and peace embrace (cf. Ps 84,11). In Him we adore the true Messiah, in whom, for our salvation, God joined together truth and mercy, justice and forgiveness.

In God's name I renew my heartfelt appeal to all, believers and non-believers, so that the two words, "justice and peace" may always be impressed upon relations between individuals, social groups and peoples.

This appeal is first and foremost for those who believe in God, in particular for the great "Abrahamic religions": Judaism, Christianity and Islam, called to declare their firm and decisive rejection of violence. No one, for any reason, can kill in the name of God, who is one and merciful. God is life and the source of life. To believe in Him means to witness to His mercy and forgiveness, rejecting the exploitation of his holy Name.

An agonizing cry for peace is being raised from various parts of the world; it is rising particularly from the Land which God blessed with his Covenant and his Incarnation and for this reason is called "Holy". "The voice of your brother's blood" cries out to God from that land (cf. Gn 4,10); the blood of brothers poured out by brothers who hark back to the same Patriarch Abraham; sons, like every human being, of the same heavenly Father.

5. "Salve, Madre santa"! Virgin Daughter of Zion, how deeply must your Mother's heart suffer for this bloodshed!

The Child you embrace has a name that is dear to the peoples of biblical religion: "Jesus", which means "God saves". So the Archangel named him before he was conceived in your womb (cf. Lk 2,21). In the face of the newborn Messiah, we recognize the face of all your children, who suffer from being despised and exploited. We recognize especially the faces of your children, to whatever race, nation or culture they may belong.

For them, O Mary, for their future, we ask you to move hearts hardened by hatred so that they may open to love and so that revenge may finally give way to forgiveness.

Obtain for us, O Mother, that the truth of this affirmation - No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness - be engraved on every heart. Thus the human family will be able to find the true peace, that flows from the union of justice and mercy.

Holy Mother, Mother of the Prince of Peace, help us!
Mother of Humanity and Queen of Peace, pray for us!

Homily on the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God by Pope John Paul II January 1, 2001



1 January 2001

1. "[The shepherds] went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph and the babe, lying in a manger" (Lk 2: 16).

Today, the Octave of Christmas, the liturgy urges us, with these words, to walk with new and conscious fervour to Bethlehem to adore the divine Child, who is born for us. It invites us to follow in the footsteps of the shepherds who, on entering the grotto, recognize in that tiny human being, "born of woman, born under the law" (Gal 4: 4), the Almighty, who made himself one of us. Beside him, Joseph and Mary are silent witnesses of the miracle of Christmas. This is the mystery which we too contemplate with amazement today: the Lord is born for us. Mary "gave birth to the King of heaven and earth for ever" (cf. Sedulius).

We remain in ecstasy before the scene which the Evangelist describes to us. Let us pause, in a special way, to contemplate the shepherds. Simple and joyful models of our human searching, especially in the context of the Great Jubilee, they highlight the interior conditions required to meet Jesus.

The disarming tenderness of the Child, the surprising poverty in which he is found and the humble simplicity of Mary and Joseph transform the shepherds' lives: thus they become messengers of salvation, evangelists ante litteram. St Luke writes: "the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them" (Lk 2: 20). They left happy and enriched by an event that had changed their lives. In their words is the echo of an inner joy which becomes praise: "they returned, glorifying and praising God".

2. In this Jubilee year, we too have set out to meet Christ, the Redeemer of man. In passing through the Holy Door, we have experienced his mysterious presence, through which man was given the possibility of passing from sin to grace, from death to life. The Son of God, who became flesh for us, has made us feel the powerful call to conversion and love.

How many gifts, how many extraordinary occasions the Great Jubilee has offered to believers! In the experience of forgiveness received and given, in the commemoration of the martyrs, in listening to the cry of the world's poor and in the testimonies full of faith passed down to us by our fellow believers of all epochs, we too have glimpsed the saving presence of God in history. We have, as it were, physically felt his love which renews the face of the earth. In a few days this special time of grace will end. Just as he asked the shepherds who hastened to adore him, Christ asks of believers, to whom he has given the joy of meeting him, a courageous readiness to set out once again to proclaim his Gospel, old and ever new. He sends them to enliven our human history and culture with his saving message.

3. "The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God" (Lk 2: 20). We too are beginning this new year which the Lord has given us encouraged and enriched by the Jubilee grace. May we find comfort in the words of the first reading which renew the Creator's blessing. "The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace" (Nm 6: 24-25). May the Lord give us his peace, peace which is not the result of human compromises but the surprising effect of his benevolent gaze upon us. This is the peace we pray for today, as we celebrate the 34th World Day of Peace.

With great affection I greet the distinguished Ambassadors of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See who are present at this solemn liturgy. I greet in particular dear Archbishop François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and, with him, the personnel of the dicastery whose specific task is to show the concern of the Pope and of the Apostolic See for the promotion of a more just and peaceful world. I greet the authorities and all those who have wished to speak at this prayer meeting for peace. Ideally I would like once again to propose to you all this year's Message for the World Day of Peace, in which I treated a particularly timely topic, "Dialogue between cultures for a civilization of love and peace".

4. Today, in this evocative liturgical framework, I renew my heartfelt invitation to every person of good will to take the privileged path of dialogue with confidence and determination. Only in this way the specific riches that characterize the history and lives of persons and peoples will not be lost but, on the contrary, will contribute to building a new era of fraternal solidarity. May everyone make an effort to promote an authentic culture of solidarity and justice, closely "connected with the value of peace, the primary objective of every society and of national and international life" (Message for World Day of Peace, n. 18).

This is even more necessary in the context of the world today, which has been made complex by the widespread human mobility, global communications and the frequently difficult encounters between different cultures. At the same time, the urgent need to defend life, a fundamental good of humanity, should be vigorously reaffirmed, since "it is not possible to invoke peace and despise life" (ibid., n. 19).

We address our prayer to the Lord so that respect for these basic values, the heritage of every culture, will contribute to building the hoped for civilization of love and peace. May Christ, Prince of Peace, whom we contemplate in the poverty of the crib, obtain this for us.

5. "Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Lk 2: 19).

Today the Church is celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. After presenting her as the One who offers the Child to the shepherds who sought him anxiously, Luke the Evangelist gives us an image of Mary, at the same time simple and majestic. Mary is the woman of faith, who made room for God in her heart, in her plans, in her body, in her experience as a wife and mother.

She is the believer who is capable of understanding the unusual event of the Son as the coming of that "fullness of time" (Gal 4: 4), in which God, choosing the simple ways of human life, decided to involve himself personally in the work of salvation.

Faith leads the Most Holy Virgin to take unknown and unforeseeable paths, while she continues to keep everything in her heart, that is, in the depths of her spirit, to respond with renewed adherence to God and to his plan of love.

6. Let us address our prayer to her at the beginning of this new year.

Help us too, O Mary, always to rethink our lives with a spirit of faith. Help us to safeguard places for silence and contemplation in the frenzy of our daily lives. Orient us constantly to the needs of true peace, a gift of the Nativity of Christ.

On this first day of 2001, we entrust to you the expectations and hopes of all humanity: "We fly to your patronage, O holy Mother of God. Despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin!" (From the Liturgy of the Hours).

Virgin Mother of God, intercede for us with your Son, so that his face will shine on the path of the new millennium and every person can live in justice and peace!


Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

The second reading for the Feast of the Holy Family is from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians. (Col.3,13-21) In it he describes the type of love we are all called to show to one another, but especially within the family. It also gives the reason why we are called to this type of love and that is because we are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. By baptism we became adopted sons and daughters of God, we became heirs to eternal happiness. We became part of a family, each member of which God loves just as much as he loves us. God loves each one of us as his unique precious and unrepeatable creation. I know that God loves me unconditionally and should I ever separate myself from him by committing a mortal sin he is always willing to forgive me if I am truly sorry , willing to do penance and really make an effort at changing my life.

Because we are God’s chosen ones then, holy and beloved, we are called to imitate his love by clothing ourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We are to bear with one another, forgive whatever grievances we have against one another. We are to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us. Over all these virtues we are to put on love which binds the rest together and makes them perfect.

The love that St. Paul talks about is not the type of love as it commonly thought of in our society. It’s common to hear about people falling in love and also about people falling out of love. It’s common to hear about married couples splitting apart and families breaking apart because the love was gone. This type of love is based in emotions. Two people with strong emotional attractions to each other are said to be in love.

But the Christian is called to a higher love, a spiritual love that is more properly called “agape.” This type of love takes into account the eternal destiny of the other and seeks that person’s good as if it were his own self. St. Paul defines this agape love more in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not jealous, it does not put on airs. It is not snobbish. Love is never rude, it is not self seeking, it is not prone to anger, neither does it brood over injuries. Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, to its hope, its power to endure.”

When St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives, it is this type of agape love. A love which is forgetful of self and seeks the good of the other. The type of love that St. Joseph had for Mary and Jesus. Even though he was not the physical father of Jesus, he loved him as his own. Joseph protected Jesus and Mary by taking a long and difficult journey into Egypt when Herod was looking to kill Jesus. He took him back to Nazareth, taught him the carpenter’s trade and showed his love for his family by living a life of quiet self sacrifice for their behalf.

It is also in this context that we have to understand the phrase “wives be submissive to your husbands.” This phrase is so widely misunderstood in our times. First we must recognize in the Roman culture at the time that wives and children were regarded as property. The Christian religion elevated the status of women and children. St. Joseph’s love and care for his family was in this sense very counter- cultural. St. Paul also says elsewhere that in God there is no Greek or Jew, no male or female, meaning that each and every human being is made in God’s image with the ability to know God. We ought to love each human being no matter what race or gender they are. All are of equal in dignity in the sight of God.

But despite what many people think today, we are not all called to fulfill the same roles. The father of a family is called in a special way to represent the fatherhood of God in his family. The father is called to love his family as Christ loved the Church. This is a very tall order when we consider that Christ died for the sake of the Church. As head of the family it certainly does not give the right to oppress any other family members or to make decisions arbitrarily without consulting his wife. This would be an abuse of the authority given to him. But in any relationship there must be one who must take leadership and make final decisions. And this falls to the father as the head of the family.

Christ subordinated his will to the Father. But Christ is equal to the Father. Therefore his subordination, his obedience, is not a sign of weakness. Jesus came to make all things new especially relationships. Outside of Christ’s love is just a passing feeling not capable of providing the tough solid foundation of order for all life. But in Christ, love and order meet. A new order appears, the order of love. Order is no longer loveless and love is no longer orderless.

Pro-Life Homily for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mat. 2, 1-18) describes the events that took place in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth and King Herod’s order that all male infants, two years old and younger, then living in and around Bethlehem be killed. He ordered this in an attempt to kill the new born King who he saw as a threat to his own power. The Book of Micah in the Bible predicted that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem: “But you, Bethlehem out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” (Micah 5,2)

We call these Holy Innocents martyrs because they died in the place of Christ. How many infants there were in Bethlehem and the surrounding area is hard to say. It may have been up to 100. In Jesus day human life was cheap. St. Matthew is the only writer to record this event for history.

With the coming of Christ new value is placed on human life. Christ reveals man to himself. In Christ we are made aware that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God; that each and every human being is unique, precious and unrepeatable. Each and every human being has an eternal destiny to be with God in Heaven.

But a decline in the practice of the Christian faith has led to increasing attacks on human life in our society today. In their document “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics” in 1998 the American Bishops wrote:

We are now witnessing the gradual restructuring of American culture according to ideals of utility, productivity and cost-effectiveness. It is a culture where moral questions are submerged by a river of goods and services and where the misuse of marketing and public relations subverts public life.

The losers in this ethical sea change will be those who are elderly, poor, disabled and politically marginalized. None of these pass the utility test; and yet, they at least have a presence. They at least have the possibility of organizing to be heard. Those who are unborn, infirm and terminally ill have no such advantage. They have no "utility," and worse, they have no voice. As we tinker with the beginning, the end and even the intimate cell structure of life, we tinker with our own identity as a free nation dedicated to the dignity of the human person. When American political life becomes an experiment on people rather than for and by them, it will no longer be worth conducting. We are arguably moving closer to that day. Today, when the inviolable rights of the human person are proclaimed and the value of life publicly affirmed, the most basic human right, "the right to life, is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death" (Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life [Evangelium Vitae], 18).

When Christ is valued before self, human life is given its proper respect. When self is valued above Christ human life is endangered.

Below is a passage from “Pope John Paul II from his Letter to Families in 1994”:

Birth and Danger

21. It is significant that the brief account of the infancy of Jesus mentions, practically at the same time, his birth and the danger which he immediately had to confront. Luke records the prophetic words uttered by the aged Simeon when the Child was presented to the Lord in the Temple forty days after his birth. Simeon speaks of "light" and of a "sign of contradiction". He goes on to predict of Mary: "And a sword will pierce through your own soul also" (cf. Lk 2:32-35). Matthew, for his part, tells of the plot of Herod against Jesus. Informed by the Magi who came from the East to see the new king who was to be born (cf. Mt 2:2), Herod senses a threat to his power, and after their departure he orders the death of all male children aged two years or under in Bethlehem and the surrounding towns. Jesus escapes from the hands of Herod thanks to a special divine intervention and the fatherly care of Joseph, who takes him with his mother into Egypt, where they remain until Herod's death. The Holy Family then returns to Nazareth, their home town, and begins what for many years would be a hidden life, marked by the carrying out of daily tasks with fidelity and generosity (cf. Mt 2:1-23; Lk 2:39-52).

The fact that Jesus, from his very birth, had to face threats and dangers has a certain prophetic eloquence. Even as a Child, Jesus is a "sign of contradiction". Prophetically eloquent also is the tragedy of the innocent children of Bethlehem, slaughtered at Herod's command. According to the Church's ancient liturgy, they shared in the birth and saving passion of Christ. Through their own "passion", they complete "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Col 1:24).

In the infancy Gospel, the proclamation of life, which comes about in a wondrous way in the birth of the Redeemer, is thus put in sharp contrast with the threat to life, a life which embraces the mystery of the Incarnation and of the divine-human reality of Christ in its entirety. The Word was made flesh (cf. Jn 1:14): God became man. The Fathers of the Church frequently call attention to this sublime mystery: "God became man, so that we might become gods". This truth of faith is likewise the truth about the human being. It clearly indicates the gravity of all attempts on the life of a child in the womb of its mother. Precisely in this situation we encounter everything which is diametrically opposed to "fairest love". If an individual is exclusively concerned with "use", he can reach the point of killing love by killing the fruit of love. For the culture of use, the "blessed fruit of your womb" (Lk 1:42) becomes in a certain sense an "accursed fruit".

How can we not recall, in this regard, the aberrations that the so-called constitutional State has tolerated in so many countries? The law of God is univocal and categorical with respect to human life. God commands: "You shall not kill" (Ex 20:13). No human lawgiver can therefore assert: it is permissible for you to kill, you have the right to kill, or you should kill. Tragically, in the history of our century, this has actually occurred when certain political forces have come to power, even by democratic means, and have passed laws contrary to the right to life of every human being, in the name of eugenic, ethnic or other reasons, as unfounded as they are mistaken. A no less serious phenomenon, also because it meets with widespread acquiescence or consensus in public opinion, is that of laws which fail to respect the right to life from the moment of conception. How can one morally accept laws that permit the killing of a human being not yet born, but already alive in the mother's womb? The right to life becomes an exclusive prerogative of adults who even manipulate legislatures in order to carry out their own plans and pursue their own interests.

We are facing an immense threat to life: not only to the life of individuals but also to that of civilization itself. The statement that civilization has become, in some areas, a "civilization of death" is being confirmed in disturbing ways. Was it not a prophetic event that the birth of Christ was accompanied by danger to his life? Yes, even the life of the One who is at the same time Son of Man and Son of God was threatened. It was endangered from the very beginning, and only by a miracle did he escape death.

Nevertheless, in the last few decades some consoling signs of a reawakening of conscience have appeared: both among intellectuals and in public opinion itself. There is a new and growing sense of respect for life from the first moment of conception, especially among young people. "Pro- life" movements are beginning to spread. This is a leaven of hope for the future of the family and of all humanity.

Pope John Paul II recognized that respect for life is an integral part of the Gospel that we are called to believe and proclaim. Every Christian is called to be unconditionally pro-life, and to proclaim this Gospel by word and deed. Every Christian is also called to proclaim God’s mercy and love, helping to reconcile sinners to God and the Church.

In the slaughter of the Holy Innocents we see Jeremiah’s prophecy fulfilled: “A Voice is heard in Ramah, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jer. 31,15)

This passage of the Bible was the inspiration for the Project Rachel post-abortion healing program: and Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats:
If you know someone who has had an abortion or a man or woman was in any way responsible for a decision to have an abortion, please encourage them to seek and accept God's forgiveness and to make this retreat. Catholics should also be encouraged to return to the Sacrament of Penance.

In his Encyclical Letter “The Gospel of Life” Pope John Paul II writes:

99. ...I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.

Jesus took on our human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was born for us at Bethlehem and died for us in Jerusalem so that our sins would be forgiven and we might have everlasting life. There is no sin to big that God is unable or unwilling to forgive if we repent and turn back to Him.

Ask the Holy Innocents to intercede for us that we may bring about a renewed respect for human life in our society, to build a culture of life, protect the innocents in our day and comfort those who mourn.


Monday, December 26, 2005

Second Homily for the Feast of St. Stephen by St. Gregory of Nyssa

Upon entering the world, Christ brought salvation and founded the Church. The witness to the truth shone forth as well as those witnesses to such a great providence. The disciples followed their Teacher by following in his footsteps, for after Christ there came bears of Christ [Christophoroi]; after the Son of Justice [cf. Mal 3.20], they illumine the world. Stephen was the first to flourish on our behalf, not from the thorns of the Jews, but he was the first fruit for the Lord from the Church's fertility. The Jews placed a crown woven from thorns on the Savior's head [Mt 27.29] since the Cultivator of the vine considered their fruit to be evil. With regard to this the prophet says, "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the man of Judah is his pleasant planting. I have looked for grapes but behold, it produced thorns" [Is 5.7]. But the works of the evangelical truth are a foretaste of piety and offer to the Lord the holy man Stephen [Stephanos] as the first fruits of what has been cultivated in the form of a crown [stephanos] from the harmony of many and various virtues. First this wonderful man bore witness to suffering and was chosen as a faithful man by the Apostles; he was filled with the Holy Spirit by whose power he became wise. He showed diligence for preaching the divine word, and great wonders of divine power confirmed his teachings. Scripture says, "Stephen, being full of faith and power, performed great signs" [Acts 6.8]. He did not consider sufferings to be an impediment and did not hesitate to demonstrate zeal for his task; as a result, he became a great wonder and had the advantage of assuming hardship with a spirit of love. He endured sufferings, was concerned for souls, nourished them with bread, taught with words, offered bodily nourishment and set a spiritual feast because he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit. [Stephen] was sustained by the goodness of his will to serve the poor and curbed enemies by the Spirit's power of the truth. Every [thought] ought to be rejected and every premeditation against the truth ought to be dispersed. As it is written, "he cast down arguments and every proud obstacle to the power of God" [2Cor 10.5]. Holy Scripture testifies to such power and mastery of speaking so that "no one can resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke" [Acts 6.10]. However the herald of truth stirred up the council of impiety. We should take notice of the protomartyr in order to give him his due which, because of the body's weakness, could not be completed yesterday. Today we wish to make memory of him along with the holy Apostles. Neither can praise of the saints be bound by days or time because "the memory of the just man remains forever" [Ps 111.6]. As a result, their significance will remain unaltered. Therefore [praise of] the martyrs will not be without the apostles nor will the apostles be without the martyrs. The apostles are teachers of the martyrs, whereas the martyrs are images of the apostles. Indeed blessed Stephen bears their image and the stamp of the cross and was first to receive the crown of martyrdom through death. However, the martyr's endurance is a sign for teachers and has indeed become a crown on their behalf. The crown of beautiful teachers is not honor due to celebrity but growth for the Church so that as the divine Apostle says, "My dearly beloved, my joy and crown, stand firm" [Phil 4.1]. But let us return to the task at hand.

The bearer of Christ [Christophoros] has entered the assembly of those slain for Christ; the sheep has entered the pack of wolves but not every sheep fell prey and was handed over to the wolves. For they ripped apart and tore asunder the flock by biting it with accusations; rather, they were cut into pieces by reproaches, threats and denunciations just like them. Let us not pass over these words without notice. I have spoken of this assembly of evil doers which with bold effrontery comprises this pack of wolves and to which applies the reprimand, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and hears, you always resist the Holy Spirit as your fathers and those after you" [Acts 7.51]. Thus he who appeared on earth gazes heavenward and being clothed with human nature, has been transformed into the appearance and form of an angel (there is nothing unseemly here; indeed, in the protomartyr it is becoming that the martyrs' dignity become apparent that we may know the effects of such a new grace). The martyr's yearning is not only pleasing to the angelic dignity but opens heaven's gates; no longer are souls handed over to death, but they commend their spirits into Christ's hands. For the man who is Lord cries out on the cross to his Father, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" [Lk 23.46]. Stephen, the servant of Christ, extends his hands to the Lord saying, "Jesus, receive my spirit" [Acts 7.59]. Having said these words, he hands over his soul. The angels have received a member of their chorus; rather, they took him up with praise while the Jews below stoned him. However, Stephen received a heavenly inheritance after undergoing such noble struggles. To Stephen all these stones are suddenly woven together as a herald to the divine Gospel and with him are the martyrs who again shine with the beauty of salvation. We have earlier mentioned the brilliance of piety which shines so brightly, namely, Peter, James, John and those leaders of the apostolic unanimity and crowns of the Church's glory. Far be it for me to obstruct [the meaning of] Stephen's name; rather, in many ways I will show how inexhaustible it is, for it knows no end to that perfect blessedness represented by crowns. Therefore, if in a spirit of loving the truth we again enjoy crowns from Stephen and share in their memory, then we hope to participate, remain and be glorified with him, for when a promise has been confirmed, fellowship in the faith increases.

Again, brothers, enjoyment of the good occurs when the martyrs' memory illuminates the Lord's day of resurrection. Through these preceding remarks the brilliance belonging to the glory of Christ's Gospel has illumined our minds in which the rays of salvation invigorate justice and banish the gloom of impiety once they have shed light upon souls by knowledge of the truth. To me this is especially wonderful and noteworthy. We feel the sun which rises early and whose rays foreshadow the coming of day by casting its rays upon everything under heaven. It hides and obscures the stars' chorus so that we can no longer perceive their heavenly circuit. But our Lord Jesus Christ rises to us from on high as the prophet says of him, "whereby the sun's rising will visit up from on high" [Lk 1.78]. Not only does [the sun] hide like stars those holy persons who were its precursors, but it makes them shine more brightly and causes others to gleam more intensely. For the prophets radiated after his coming rather than before. Upon coming into the world the Savior illumined and rent the obscurity of prophecy with regard to the Scribes' decrees, having fulfilled the Law and prophets [cf. Rom 13.10], for he did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them [Mt 5.17]. The Savior said with regard to himself concerning the new order of grace, "I am the light of this world" [Jn 8.12]. The fountain of goodness coming from the good Father did not scorn to allow his servants participate in himself but said to his disciples, "You are the light of the world" [Mt 5.14], and "Let your deeds shine before men" [Mt 5.16]. We again confirm her our words by the Lord's grace: John the Baptist was called a lamp [Jn 12.27], and in the Psalms [Christ] was announced and witnessed to by the Lord. The prophet says in the person of the Father in one of the hymns, "I have prepared a light for my Christ" [Ps 131.17, lxx]. That is, I have prepared a helper and precursor for the light. The Lord confirms this voice of the Father by saying, "He [John] was a burning lamp" [Jn 5.35]. However, such a light withdrew and became obscure at the Lord's coming who was the sun of righteousness [cf. Mal 3.20]. In this way, the baptist might radiate all the more as a proclaimer of [Christ's] divinity. John therefore was called a lamp because he illumined through one [sun] alone the house of Israel [cf. Mt 5.15]. The Apostles of the Savior were neither lamps, lights nor stars but messengers of light not illumining one region or area but brightening every place under heaven. The most important leaders were Peter, James and John who were designated as witnesses by Christ, running to the end of their lives and expending themselves by various forms of witness. For he whom the Lord designated as leader of the apostolic chorus obtained proper glory. By the cross he expressed the lordly image of the king (I mean the image of the cross of which he was not ashamed of suffering but took it as a great trophy. Neither we nor any other person, as Paul says, can say that Jesus Christ is our Lord. Thus Peter radiates with much holiness and reverence when he is suspended upside down on a cross in order not to equal himself with his Savior's glory which spread through his crucifixion to humanity in its entirety and whose embrace included the entire world. James was beheaded [cf. Acts 12.2] out of love for Christ his true head. As the Apostle says, Christ is the head of man and the entire church [cf. 1Cor 11.3, Eph 5.23]. Blessed John endured many, diverse conflicts and succeeded in various positions with regard to fostering the religion. He underwent an unsuccessful attempt at being drowned and was judged to be numbered among the martyrs' chorus. [John] was held in esteem not by his suffering but by his desire to undergo martyrdom, a type of death which became an immortal tribute who by his death had graced the churches. It is indeed fitting to recall those special men not only with regard to their outstanding piety but their noble character. Together they hold special rank among the other apostles, and their courage does not belong to human reasoning but is in accord with the judgment of divine truth.

Such persons recognized by their great wonders are only known by the Lord in their steadfast fidelity and true witness. This was the vision on the mountain when the Lord was transfigured in resplendent, divine glory only before Peter, James and John [[cf. Mt 17.1ff.]. Both Moses and Elias were present with him, and his brilliance which was overshadowed by a cloud revealed the king's great image. Such was the case with Jairus' daughter whom [Jesus] brought back to life [cf. Mt 26.37], only in this instance they were witnesses to the miracle. Without delaying further, we see that [Jesus] took these same men at the time of his saving passion when he encouraged and confirmed them to be faithful by saying, "Now my soul is troubled" [Jn 12.27]. We do not relate these words to cast a bad light upon the rest of the apostles but as a testimony in remembrance of their virtue. If we must speak truthfully, then we offer a common praise to the apostles, for excellency among the saints is not restricted by human discernment but by God's judgment and truth. We have been made worthy of sharing them by recalling such men and must give thanks not so much because we are obliged (this is impossible) but in so far our capacity (this indeed is possible). The saints accept our honor not in order to gain something but only that we might share a common benefit. Again I think we should recall not only Peter, James and John but celebrate the memory of all the apostles. If anyone attains the truth which is in accord with their teachings, this person serves to complete the form of one body. As the Apostle says, "if one member is glorified then all the others are glorified" [1Cor 12.26]. Thus truth is especially present in those blessed, perfect men who share the same faith and the same blessing of piety and who solemnly participate in the truth. Who does not gladly exult and is filled with the Holy Spirit once he has been deemed worthy of sharing the apostolic chorus, of guiding the entire world into the knowledge of truth, of filling the true religion's net with the world? Such a person has ensnared with traps whatever belongs to the truth in order to seize every type of evil which afflicts mankind and to lead men to him who both tames and saves them? "To every place on the earth goes their sound" [Ps 18.5]. Here are the foundations of the Church, the columns and supports of truth which are the eternal fountains of salvation from which with great abundance the streams of divine teaching flows. With regard to these matters the prophetic voices says to us, "You will draw water with joy from the fountains of salvation" [Is 12.3].

Peter, the chief of the Apostles, is recalled and the remaining members of the Church are glorified with him for indeed the Church of God is established upon him. This is accord with the Lord's words who made him the firm and most solid rock upon which he had built his Church [cf. Mt 16.16ff]. Then we have mention of James, John and as sons of thunder whom the Savior had named and who had brought rain clouds; for the gathering of clouds by necessity herald rain. Thus the clouds represent Apostles and prophetic words; although times of preaching differ, nevertheless the laws of true religion are in harmony and one spirit is the source of various gifts. But who can explain for those who are incapable their courage and worthily recall apostolic virtue? We do not refer to Simon who was known for his fishing or for his ambition to receive praise but to his steadfast faith which made the entire Church firm. Neither again do we mention the sons of Zebedee but the Boanergoi, that is, the Sons of Thunder. How does such a faint sound is now so insufficient transformed into thunderous words which penetrate every ear? Therefore we desire to dismiss an ineffective silence with regard to studying the saints, being fully aware that their memory makes us worthy of being with them and of imitating their virtue. We do not celebrate their lives by words but by keeping their manner of life in ours minds. We show ourselves as worthy disciples not through irrational words but by reverence, good speech, by having the same opinion and ardor. Do you honor the martyrs' memory and hold them in veneration? Fellowship with their memory implies agreement with their mind. Does not the light of knowledge by the Gospel's glory concerning Christ illumine such persons [cf. 2Cor 4.4, 6]? Is not grace poured out by them? Their commands, way of life, struggle, judgement of truth are one and make us worthy by the prayers and intercession of the saints whom we recall through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and power forever. Amen.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Homily for December 26 - the Feast of Saint Stephen, Promartyr by St. Gregory of Nyssa

Homily for the Feast of Saint Stephen, Protomartyr by St. Gregory of Nyssa

How lovely is the inspiration exhibited by those who are good, and how sweet is the joy which they disclose! See, we acquire a feast from a feast and grace from grace. Yesterday the Lord of the universe welcomed us whereas today it is the imitator [Stephen] of the Lord. How are they related to each other? One assumed human nature on our behalf while the other shed it for his Lord. One accepted the cave of this life for us, and the other left it for him. One was wrapped in swaddling clothes for us, and the other was stoned for him. One destroyed death, and the other scorned it.

Brethren, let us hasten to the stadium where the great athlete contends against the wicked adversary of human life by stripping himself in the arena by his confession [of faith] [cf. 1Cor 4.9]. Indeed, as Paul has said [Heb 12.4], Stephen [Stephanos] has become a spectacle to the world, angels and to men. He was the first to have received the crown [stephanos] of martyrdom, the first to have paved the way for the chorus of martyrs and the first to have resisted sin to the point of shedding blood. It seems to me that the entire host of transcendent powers, angels, and myriads both assist and accompany them [i.e., the martyrs]. If we hear anything honorable in the heavens from among the principalities, powers, thrones, ruling forces and the entire heavenly assembly, their words provide an athletic spectacle by contending with an opponent [cf. Col 1.16 & Eph 1.21].

Let human life resemble a stadium for the contestants where one person contends against another. That antagonist which showed himself hostile to human life from the fall of our first parents until the time of Stephen strove to be victorious over men, yet the great athlete of faith considered his assaults as nothing [cf. Wis 2.24]. Both took up arms against each other: the inventor of death confronted a threat to death, whereas the disciple of life confessed his faith. For who could not help but admire this new type of struggle when truth judged between life and death chronicled the truth? For while the herald of a life hidden [in God] remained unknown, he nevertheless divulged it to men. At once he forsook this life and rightly judged it better to exchange a more honorable life for the present one.

It would be beneficial to accurately record his contest in order to disclose the order of our method by a series of miracles. Recently a powerful wind from heaven scattered every airy, deceptive power of the demons and filled the Apostles' house. Tongues of fire resided in each man corresponding with the number of those who received the grace of the Spirit. All were overcome by shock and confusion with the widely diverse languages immediately which the disciples spoke according to the sound and wonder of tongues and to the astonishment of those from every nation who were dwelling in Jerusalem [cf. Acts 2.2-5]. This was not a result of training and study but was a gift in the form of speaking which suddenly came from the Spirit's inspiration. Those engaged in constructing an earthly tower must speak the same language when building the church's spiritual dwelling. And so, the Holy Spirit's wonderful dispensation introduced grace in order to diffuse it, thereby providing a common benefit for everyone through the medium of the human voice. In this way the preaching of piety might not be limited to one tongue and remain unprofitable for those persons who spoke various tongues.

Even at this early point the Pharisees did not believe with their own ears and concocted to trip up persons astonished by these miraculous events as though new wine had made them [the Apostles] insane [cf. Acts 2.13]. Then Peter's solitary defense captured three thousand souls for Christ [cf. Acts 2.41], after which the church grew in the number of those who had been delivered. Those who were saved opened the temple's Beautiful Gate for the man born lame [cf. Acts 3.2ff] because his miraculous healing both increased and led to the faith persons lame in soul. As a result, many flocked when the faith was preached and sought help from the diverse profusion of grace at which point Stephen, who was wealthy in wisdom and grace by the Spirit, was summoned to assist the Apostles [cf. Acts 6.5]. Let no one think that the name of minister [diakonia] made him inferior to the dignity of the Apostles. Since Paul realized that he was a minister of the mysteries of Christ [cf. 1Cor 4.1] and the Lord of the universe brought salvation by assuming human, he was not ashamed to be called a minister. As the Apostle says, he was in their midst as one who serves [cf. Lk 22.27] and as one who provides a variety of ministries [cf. 1Cor 12.5-6].

Just as fire consumes useful material and bright flames rise on high, so did the Holy Spirit make the rays of grace shine brighter through Stephen's nobility. Similarly, all turned to him because he was gifted with knowledge and training. Those few persons who gathered together seemed to be a dense crowd much like a phalanx which attempted to assail Stephen who was equally serene whether in the company of many or few persons. Then certain persons under the guise of Alexandrians, Libertinians, Cyrenians and men from every place engaged the athlete in a debate regarding the truth. The father of lies assumed a human form and rose against truth which Stephen had spoken [cf. Jn 8.44]. However, the truth brought forth trophies against such lies, and its excellence wonderfully put to flight every assault of deception. The minister of truth sought the truth about the enemy who concealed his substance; rather, he made the truth appear as something which lacks substance.

How does this ruse affect the preacher? I believe that it comes from the devil. If any of you shares his strength, the truth destroys it in Stephen. But if that truth is loftier than your machinations, why are you deceitfully planning evil against the vessel of truth in order to destroy what remains of it? Dogs do this when they open their mouths for stones cast to them, yet they cannot touch the person whom threw them. Since true facts repulsed such a lie and could no longer find another champion of deception, all who looked squarely at the manifest truth remembered his own struggle. Stephen directed his energy against his accusers who passed judgment upon him, for they brought false accusations against him while being marked by rage and slander. The Jews brought various accusers against Stephen including judges who were either elected or who were subservient to death and did not know the impact of a ruinous vote levelled against Stephen. For just as experienced athletes bring down their more formidable opponents through vigorous training and thereby make them fall, so did the great Stephen who lay prostrate upon the ground overcome his adversary with difficultly.

From this point began the Apostles' journey throughout the entire world and their preaching. If it were not for [Stephen's] murder and the Jews' rage against the Apostles, perhaps the grace of the Gospel would have been confined to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Having been driven out by the Jews to another nation, the teaching of the [Christian] mysteries expelled the devil from the world. Thus Samaria received the preaching [cf. Acts 8.14]; salvation reached the eunuch through Philip [Acts 8.26ff]; Paul was a great vessel of election armed against the devil's wrath and his threats against whose arrows he raised a shield [Acts 9.15], thereby abolishing him from the entire earth and making all places accessible to the faith of Christ. As a result, Egyptians, Syrians, Parthians, Mesopotamians, Galatians, Illurians, Macedonians as well as nations from everywhere hastened to hear the preaching. Do you see Stephen's athletic prowess and how the adversary was brought down to ruin although he appeared more excellent than his adversary by making false accusations?

But let us return again to the stadium. How do the calumniators enflame the people? They say, "He does not cease to speak words against this holy place and the Law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs which Moses handed down to us" [Acts 6.13-14]. Such is the allegation presented by the devil's speech, but who pays attention to such rubbish? Against whom do they rage so vehemently and what evil can they detect in his words? They even brought forth another indictment against [Stephen] claiming that he boasted that this place would be destroyed and that the institutes of Moses would be changed. What outrage doe these words contain whether they happen to be true or false? If false, there is no cause for alarm; if true, what unjust ground is there for denunciation? For what had transpired will indeed happen again whether or not we remain silent. Can the murder of him who was denounced earlier relieve persons who are grieving? For example, Jesus the Nazarene was condemned by the same vote of reprisal levelled against Stephen. If he who is unjust vents his wrath, gives place to injustice and alters customs, Stephen is not responsible for these acts but it is Jesus, as the accuser says, and the court is compelled to pass judgement against him who is accused. Oh, what an unfair verdict for those who are listening! Since Jesus, says the judge, changes the laws, Stephen should then be stoned. How did Jesus abrogate the Law when he affirmed its antiquity by saying, "I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it" [Mt 5.17]? Who strengthened his disciples according to the Law? He forbade them to become angry and to commit murder [cf. Mt 5.21-22], rejected adultery out of desire [cf. Mt 5.39], ordered that grief not be repaid since unjust hands cannot lay hold of you [cf. Mt 6.19ff] and wiped out passion, a result of greed, and taught mastery over it. Why were these neither mentioned nor examined when judgement was passed? I do not wish the crowd of those bloodstained judges to be present and do not want to know about places associated with such malevolent persons, the celebrated temple's location, the huge amount of stones, the gold left over which equalled the small amount left in the temple, the sacrifices according to the Law such as the ram, calf, lamb, heifer, dove, turtle-dove and he-goat for averting evil [cf. Lev 16.20ff]. Therefore if they condemn Stephen to death in order to deflect their sadness, they reveal their fruits through that terrible murder. If nothing is left, they claim that the vote counts, not the murder.

But let us see in the succeeding struggles how he who was covered by stones as if they were snow had warded off his murderers and how he returned a variety of thunderbolts against those who cast stones. The Jews knew the Christians' weapons which the great Stephen used to ward off their attacks and who made it the law of life. They were all fierce, standing in a circle, looked at him with a hysterical gaze and brandished a weapon against Stephen in their hands. However, he resembled a priest according to the spiritual law, was a pure sacrifice, submissive, and offered his own body instead of an offering of sprinkled blood. He saw God in the celestial sanctuary, made petition on behalf of those who mistreated him, exchanged their bloodthirstiness for a good deed and cried out in their ears, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" [Acts 7.60]. By this prayer he expiated their sin which the murderers committed by their transgression and who were exasperated at his prayer. However, this did not prevent them from casting stones until the great Stephen fell into a sweet, blessed sleep as though he were surrounded by tender flowers or by gentle dew.

The athletes have achieved victory before we see those crowned who had engaged in fierce struggles since before seeing the contest, we have attained the goal of their struggles. I believe that we must not neglect them without mentioning the outstanding nature of their witness. This gathering of murderers was so filled with rage that they resorted to bloodshed; their evil was so strong that it restricted their breathing; their glance, appearance and passion was manifested by their teeth as divine Scripture says concerning enraged hearts which gnashed their teeth against him [cf. Acts 7.54]. Being in their midst, he girded himself against their hostile, murderous intent, surmounted their contemptuous intentions, resisted their wrath with patience and their threats with disdain, the fear of death with contempt, hatred with love, ill-will with benevolence and slander with truth.

Not only did the true athlete reveal one type of victory but combatted by countless virtues every form of evil which the Jews devised, thereby resulting in victory. I hear about various contests of strength in gymnasiums when athletes strip themselves naked in the arena and achieve victory against their contenders. Such martyrs are sovereign in the stadium, resisting with their own power every adversary and are as a beacon of triumph for all to see. The false wisdom of the Libertinians, Cyreninas and sages from Alexandria [Acts 6.9] contend against him who is triumphant through true wisdom: courage overcomes fear, disdain conquers threats, charity subdues savagery and truth is victorious over falsehood. They sought to murder him, and their hands were already armed with stones; their glance and breathing through their teeth held tightly together revealed their brutality. Nevertheless, he saw them as brothers and greeted them as fathers saying, "Men, brothers and fathers, listen [Acts 7.2]!"

They persuasively devised all sorts of calumny by convening a council of murderers against the truth. [Stephen] neither reproved them out of fear, was unconcerned with impending dangers nor did he consider death; rather, having his soul raised on high and appearing as though her were senseless to everyone gazing upon him, he taught them as though they were foolish children and demonstrated the error of their doctrines with regard to faith. In their presence [Stephen] briefly recounted the story of Abraham as well as the saints who followed him [cf. Acts 7.2-7]. He also added Moses, his birth, upbringing, education, initiation on the mountain, smiting the Egyptians, service to the Israelites and prophesy concerning the mystery of the Lord [cf. Acts 7.20-22, 30, 34, 36-37]. What especially incited this group and fomented their illness was that Moses to whom they were especially devoted was a mentor for their teaching. They rose up against him in order to quiet him, something which Stephen desired in order to end his bitterness. He exited human nature and before he left the body, with pure eyes gazed upon heaven's gates and the temple's interior, the revelation of divine glory and the effulgence of his glory [cf. Acts 7.55-56]. The stamp of the Father's glory [cf. Heb 1.3] could not be described, and the athlete saw his brilliance among men which accommodated itself to human nature. Thus being outside human nature, he shared the angelic nature which seemed like a miracle to these murderers. His face was changed to assume that of the angels and seeing invisible reality, he proclaimed the grace he had beheld [cf. Acts 7.56]. But they blocked their ears and did not wish to see this with their eyes, preferring their own self-righteous since they were not capable of hearing this divine report. However, he shared the grace with those present although he alone was worthy of it: "I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at God's right hand" [Acts 7.57]. They exclaimed with a great voice, blocked their ears and unanimously rushed upon him. History recounts a similar uproar in order to show how their actions coincide with the Sodomites, for the judge [God] hears their wicked cry when he says, "The cry of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah have reached me" [Gen 18.20-21]. Therefore they shouted out in order that the cry against Stephen might be heard.

The athlete fully realized the benefit hidden beneath the murderers' bitterness because they who stood in a circle ready to stone him provided him with a crown much like a victor's crown plaited at enemy hands. Therefore [Stephen] warded off their murderous intent by a blessing and being fully aware of their plan to slay him, was prepared to suffer death at their hands. Furthermore, he believed that his enemies had the opportunity of conferring a benefit upon him. For this reason the person who knows Christ wishes to bring his enemies into submission. [Stephen] knew that the Lawgiver was patient, recalled his command to love one's enemies, to do good to those who bear hatred and to pray for one's enemies [cf. Mt 5.44]. But the athlete's goal does not consider human glory; rather, he seeks to overcome the entire world by the magnificence of his triumph and to outstrip human endurance, thereby rejecting every type of praise.

Although [Stephen] acquires victory in accord with every human manner of praise, we should pay attention to the narrative which pertains to the salvation of souls. Just as there are some athletes who have ceased their activity and train youths for athletic competitions through skillful technical maneuvers to vanquish their adversaries, so I think we should be trained by the great Stephen in piety that we might escape the grips of spiritual adversaries [pneumatomachoi]. For those who are mad with rage detract from the Spirit's glory claiming that Stephen is an advocate of their error when he gazed intently at heaven and saw God's glory and Jesus standing at his right hand [Acts 7.55]. They claimed that he perverted the teachings of piety when, if the Spirit should be included along with the Father and Son, why did not Stephen see in his vision the Spirit with the Son? Therefore how did Stephen cause such distress by uttering these words with his hands outstretched? How does his reasonable tactics counteract such distressing words since he countered the incredulity of his adversaries at that very spot? Do you seek, oh pneumatichos, when the Father's glory appears and the Son stands at his right, the location of the Spirit? If the Spirit were present within you, you would not fail to notice what is proposed [of the Spirit] much like those with defective vision who are ignorant of gold lying at their feet. At any rate I have now gotten wind of this and [desire] that you do not subscribe to the rumor devised by the Jews.

How did Stephen see transcendent glory? Who laid bare heaven's gates for him? Was this the work of men? Which of the angels enabled inferior [human] nature soar to that height? Stephen was not alone when he was generously filled with power coming from the angels which enabled him to see what he saw. What was recorded? "Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw the glory of God and his Only-Begotten Son" [Acts 7.55]. As the Prophet says, light cannot be seen unless one is filled with light: "In your light we shall see light" [Ps 35.10] (If observation of the light does not share this same light, how can anyone deprived of the sun's rays see it?). Since the Father's light makes this possible, the Only Begotten [Son's] light emanates through the Holy Spirit which makes it visible. Therefore the Spirit's glory enables us to perceive the glory of both the Father and Son. But can we say that the Gospel is true which says that "No man has ever seen God" [Jn 1.18]? How do the Apostle's words agree with the following, "No man has seen nor can see [God]" [1Tm 6.16]? If human nature and power can perceive the glory of the Father and Son, their vision must indeed be mistaken. However, history is true and cannot lie. The evil deed of the pneumatomachoi is indeed made clear because Scripture bears witness to similar situations. For Stephen beholds God not in human nature and power but is united by grace to the Holy Spirit who elevates him in order to comprehend God. Therefore, one cannot say that Jesus is Lord apart from the Spirit, as the Apostle says [cf. 1Tm 6.16, 1Cor 12.3]. One cannot contemplate the Father's glory because where the Spirit is the Son is seen and is grasped the Father's glory.

But history presents us with another problem, namely, the weapon of impiety coming from the Christomachoi who condemn the Only Begotten [Son], for they consider the One present in the Father's glory to be inferior to his authority. What about Paul? How shall I answer them? What does the prophet David who lived earlier say when he explained the glory of the Only Begotten [Son] by the teaching of the Spirit? David says, "The Lord said to my Lord, `Sit at my right hand'" [Ps 109.1]. The Apostle says that the Lord is seated at the right hand of God's throne [Col 3.1, Heb 1.3]. If this represents either a place of inferiority or a seat of honor, testimony concerning [J.92] its magnificence is added in order to signify the loftiness of honor and the reception of true piety. For the Spirit's grace teaches all these things. Stephen, being filled with the Holy Spirit, saw everything and spoke about what he knew. While in the Spirit, David calls "Lord" as the Gospel says [Mt 22.43]; when Paul, speaks of him, he mentions mysteries in the Spirit [1Cor 14.2]. Therefore if there is one teacher who is in complete harmony, the teaching is the Spirit of truth which was present in divinely inspired persons. Then how can any dissonance be present in teachings? But there is another seat and position which I can easily point out and will now mention it. Instead of showing concern for the body, these words should refer to what is incorporeal. With regard to man, the seat signifies that part of the body's hips which enables it not to continuously bear strain and thereby become weighed down and crooked. On the other hand, an upright position upon one's knees signifies that a person does not rest upon his hips when seated. But when it comes to transcendent nature, sitting and standing have no place with such concepts since each is separate and should be understood respectively. We neither subscribe to a bent position regarding incorporeal nature nor a sitting down with regard to what is formless; rather, we devoutly understand that each represents stability and being unmoved in every good. For standing and sitting apply to God and do not pertain to a difference of words concerning concepts which teach that God is firmly standing and sitting unmoved in the good. The prophet David and the apostle Paul do not comprehend the sitting of the Only Begotten [Son] in the same manner because the Father is standing and the Son is sitting. Indeed, by mentioning only the fact that the Son is sitting, Scripture tells us about the standing of the Son and no longer suggests the sitting of the Father. For just as Paul and David both confessed the Father sitting through the Son's standing at his right, indeed nothing is taught beforehand concerning the Father which is also true regarding Stephen where the Son is standing and revealed in the Father's glory. Thus this image is valid if it appears to be a satisfactory archetype. Goodness is present in what is good, light is present in the light it reflects and primeval beauty is present in everything supported by an appropriate image. Thus we should clearly understand the image of the Son's sitting, the Father's sitting and the standing in the standing which differs from the archetype's properties.

Brothers, you should ponder our words and thoughts and hold them as introductory remarks since Stephen's vision provokes reflection. We are not only spectators of Stephen's contest but since we are full of the Holy Spirit, we share his grace and eradicate adversaries for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ to whom be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI's Homily at Midnight Mass for Christmas 2005

Pope Benedict XVI's Homily at Midnight Mass for Christmas 2005

The Vatican's official English-language translation of the Italian text of Pope Benedict's homily, pronounced in Italian, during Midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.


“The Lord said to me: You are my son; this day I have begotten you.” With these words of the second Psalm, the Church begins the Vigil Mass of Christmas, at which we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ our Redeemer in a stable in Bethlehem. This Psalm was once a part of the coronation rite of the kings of Judah. The people of Israel, in virtue of its election, considered itself in a special way a son of God, adopted by God. Just as the king was the personification of the people, his enthronement was experienced as a solemn act of adoption by God, whereby the King was in some way taken up into the very mystery of God. At Bethlehem night, these words, which were really more an expression of hope than a present reality, took on new and unexpected meaning. The Child lying in the manger is truly God's Son. God is not eternal solitude but rather a circle of love and mutual self-giving. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But there is more: in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God himself became man. To him the Father says: “You are my son.” God's everlasting “today” has come down into the fleeting today of the world and lifted our momentary today into God's eternal today. God is so great that he can become small. God is so powerful that he can make himself vulnerable and come to us as a defenceless child, so that we can love him. God is so good that he can give up his divine splendour and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us and continue to work through us. This is Christmas: “You are my son, this day I have begotten you.” God has become one of us, so that we can be with him and become like him. As a sign, he chose the Child lying in the manger: this is how God is. This is how we come to know him. And on every child shines something of the splendour of that “today,” of that closeness of God which we ought to love and to which we must yield it shines on every child, even on those still unborn.

Let us listen to a second phrase from the liturgy of this holy Night, one taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “Upon the people who walked in darkness a great light has shone” (Is 9:1). The word “light” pervades the entire liturgy of tonight's Mass. It is found again in the passage drawn from Saint Paul's letter to Titus: “The grace of God has appeared” (2:11). The expression “has appeared,” in the original Greek says the same thing that was expressed in Hebrew by the words “a light has shone”: this “apparition” this “epiphany” is the breaking of God's light upon a world full of darkness and unsolved problems. The Gospel then relates that the glory of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and “shone around them” (Lk 2:9). Wherever God's glory appears, light spreads throughout the world. Saint John tells us that “God is light and in him is no darkness” (1 Jn 1:5). The light is a source of life.

But first, light means knowledge; it means truth, as contrasted with the darkness of falsehood and ignorance. Light gives us life, it shows us the way. But light, as a source of heat, also means love. Where there is love, light shines forth in the world; where there is hatred, the world remains in darkness. In the stable of Bethlehem there appeared the great light which the world awaits. In that Child lying in the stable, God has shown his glory the glory of love, which gives itself away, stripping itself of all grandeur in order to guide us along the way of love. The light of Bethlehem has never been extinguished. In every age it has touched men and women, “it has shone around them.” Wherever people put their faith in that Child, charity also sprang up charity toward others, loving concern for the weak and the suffering, the grace of forgiveness. From Bethlehem a stream of light, love and truth spreads through the centuries. If we look to the Saints from Paul and Augustine to Francis and Dominic, from Francis Xavier and Teresa of Avila to Mother Teresa of Calcutta we see this flood of goodness, this path of light kindled ever anew by the mystery of Bethlehem, by that God who became a Child. In that Child, God countered the violence of this world with his own goodness. He calls us to follow that Child.

Along with the Christmas tree, our Austrian friends have also brought us a small flame lit in Bethlehem, as if to say that the true mystery of Christmas is the inner brightness radiating from this Child. May that inner brightness spread to us, and kindle in our hearts the flame of God's goodness; may all of us, by our love, bring light to the world! Let us keep this light-giving flame from being extinguished by the cold winds of our time! Let us guard it faithfully and give it to others! On this night, when we look toward Bethlehem, let us pray in a special way for the birthplace of our Redeemer and for the men and women who live and suffer there. We wish to pray for peace in the Holy Land: Look, O Lord, upon this corner of the earth, your homeland, which is so very dear to you! Let your light shine upon it! Let it know peace!

The word “peace” brings us to a third key to the liturgy of this holy Night. The Child foretold by Isaiah is called “Prince of Peace.” His kingdom is said to be one “of endless peace.” The shepherds in the Gospel hear the glad tidings: “Glory to God in the highest” and “on earth, peace . . .” At one time we used to say: “to men of good will.” Nowadays we say “to those whom God loves.” What does this change mean? Is good will no longer important? We would do better to ask: who are those whom God loves, and why does he love them? Does God have favourites? Does he love only certain people, while abandoning the others to themselves? The Gospel answers these questions by pointing to some particular people whom God loves. There are individuals, like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. But there are also two groups of people: the shepherds and the wise men from the East, the “Magi.” Tonight let us look at the shepherds. What kind of people were they? In the world of their time, shepherds were looked down upon; they were considered untrustworthy and not admitted as witnesses in court. But really, who were they? To be sure, they were not great saints, if by that word we mean people of heroic virtue. They were simple souls. The Gospel sheds light on one feature which later on, in the words of Jesus, would take on particular importance: they were people who were watchful. This was chiefly true in a superficial way: they kept watch over their flocks by night. But it was also true in a deeper way: they were ready to receive God's word. Their life was not closed in on itself; their hearts were open. In some way, deep down, they were waiting for him. Their watchfulness was a kind of readiness a readiness to listen and to set out. They were waiting for a light which would show them the way. That is what is important for God. He loves everyone, because everyone is his creature. But some persons have closed their hearts; there is no door by which his love can enter. They think that they do not need God, nor do they want him. Other persons, who, from a moral standpoint, are perhaps no less wretched and sinful, at least experience a certain remorse. They are waiting for God. They realize that they need his goodness, even if they have no clear idea of what this means. Into their expectant hearts God's light can enter, and with it, his peace. God seeks persons who can be vessels and heralds of his peace. Let us pray that he will not find our hearts closed. Let us strive to be active heralds of his peace in the world of today.

Among Christians, the word “peace” has taken on a very particular meaning: it has become a name for the Eucharist. There Christ's peace is present. In all the places where the Eucharist is celebrated, a great network of peace spreads through the world. The communities gathered around the Eucharist make up a kingdom of peace as wide as the world itself. When we celebrate the Eucharist we find ourselves in Bethlehem, in the “house of bread.” Christ gives himself to us and, in doing so, gives us his peace. He gives it to us so that we can carry the light of peace within and give it to others. He gives it to us so that we can become peacemakers and builders of peace in the world. And so we pray: Lord, fulfill your promise! Where there is conflict, give birth to peace! Where there is hatred, make love spring up! Where darkness prevails, let light shine! Make us heralds of your peace! Amen.

A Sermon for Christmas Day by John Henry Cardinal Newman

"THERE ARE two principal lessons which we are taught on the great Festival which we this day celebrate, lowliness and joy. This surely is a day, of all others, in which is set before us the heavenly excellence and the acceptableness in God's sight of that state which most men have, or may have, allotted to them, humble or private life, and cheerfulness in it. If we consult the writings of historians, philosophers and poets of this world, we shall be led to think great men happy; we shall be led to fix our minds and hearts upon high or conspicuous stations, strange adventures, powerful talents to cope with them, memorable struggles, and great destinies. We shall consider that the highest course of life is the mere pursuit, not the enjoyment, of good.

But when we think of this day's Festival, and what we commemorate upon it, a new and very different scene opens upon us. First, we are reminded that though this life must ever be a life of toil and effort, yet that, properly speaking, we have not to seek our highest good. It is found; it is brought near us, in the descent of the Son of God from His Father's bosom to this world. It is stored up among us on earth. No longer need men of ardent minds weary themselves in the pursuit of what they fancy may be chief goods; no longer have they to wander about and encounter peril in quest of that unknown blessedness to which their hearts naturally aspire, as they did in heathen times. The text speaks to them and to all, "Unto you," it says, "is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

Nor, again, need we go in quest of any of those things which this vain world calls great and noble. Christ altogether dishonored what the world esteems when He took on Himself a rank and station which the world despises. No lot could be more humble and more ordinary than that which the Son of God chose for Himself.

So that we have on the Feast of the Nativity these two lessons, instead of anxiety within and despondence without, instead of a weary search after great things—to be cheerful and joyful; and, again, to be so in the midst of those obscure and ordinary circumstances of life which the world passes over and thinks scorn of.

Let us consider this more at length, as contained in the gracious narrative of which the text is just a part.

First, what do we read just before the text? That there were certain shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, and Angels appeared to them. Why should the heavenly hosts appear to these shepherds? What was it in them which attracted the attention of the Angels and the Lord of Angels? Were these shepherds learned, distinguished or powerful? Were they especially known for piety and gifts? Nothing is said to make us think so. Faith, we may safely say, they had, or some of them, for to him that hath more shall be given; but there is nothing to show that they were holier and more enlightened than other good men of the time, who waited for the consolation of Israel. Nay, there is no reason to suppose that they were better than the common run of men in their circumstances, simple, and fearing God, but without any great advances in piety, or any very formed habits of religion. Why then were they chosen? For their poverty's sake and obscurity. Almighty God looks with a sort of especial love, or (as we may term it) affection, upon the lowly. Perhaps it is that man, a fallen, dependent, and destitute creature, is more in his proper place when he is in lowly circumstances, and that power and riches, though unavoidable in the case of some, are unnatural appendages to man as such. Just as there are trades and callings which are unbecoming, though requisite; and while we profit by them, and honor those the more who engage in them, yet we feel we are glad that they are not ours; as we feel grateful and respectful towards a soldiers' profession, yet do not affect it; so in God's sight greatness is less acceptable than obscurity. It becomes us less.

The shepherds, then, were chosen on account of their lowliness to be the first to hear of the Lord's nativity, a secret which none of the princes of this world knew.

And what a contrast is presented to us when we take into account who were our Lord's messengers to them! The Angels who excel in strength, these did His bidding towards the shepherds. Here the highest and the lowest of God's rational creatures are brought together. A set of poor men, engaged in a life of hardship, exposed at that very time to the cold and darkness of the night, watching their flocks, with the view of scaring away beasts of prey or robbers; they—when they are thinking of nothing but earthly things, counting over the tale of their sheep, keeping their dogs by their side, and listening to the noises over the plain, considering the weather and watching for the day—suddenly are met by far other visitants than they conceived. We know the contracted range of thought, the minute and ordinary objects, or rather the one or two objects, to and fro again and again without variety, which engage the minds of men exposed to such a life of heat, cold, and wet, hunger and nakedness, hardship and servitude. They cease to care much for anything, but go on in a sort of mechanical way, without heart, and still more without reflection.

To men so circumstanced the Angel appeared, to open their minds, and to teach them not to be downcast and in bondage because they were low in the world. He appeared as if to show them that God had chosen the poor in this world to be heirs of His kingdom, and so to do honor to their lot. "Fear not," he said; "for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

And now comes a second lesson, which I have said may be gained from the Festival. The Angel honored a humble lot by his very appearing to the shepherds; next he taught it to be joyful by his message. He disclosed good tidings so much above this world as to equalize high and low, rich and poor, one with another. He said, "Fear not." This is a mode of address frequent in Scripture, as you may have observed, as if man needed some such assurance to support him, especially in God's presence. The Angel said, "Fear not," when he saw the alarm which his presence caused among the shepherds. Even a lesser wonder would have reasonably startled them. Therefore the Angel said, "Fear not." We are naturally afraid of any messenger from the other world, for we have an uneasy conscience when left to ourselves, and think that his coming forebodes evil. Besides, we so little realize the unseen world, that were Angel or spirit to present himself before us we should be startled by reason of our unbelief, a truth being brought home to our minds which we never apprehended before. So for one or other reason, the shepherds were sore afraid when the glory of the Lord shone round about them. And the Angel said, "Fear not." A little religion makes us afraid; when a little light is poured in upon the conscience, there is a darkness visible; nothing but sights of woe and terror; the glory of God alarms while it shines around. His holiness, the range and difficulties of His commandments, the greatness of His power, the faithfulness of His word, frighten the sinner, and men seeing him afraid think religion has made him so, whereas he is not yet religious at all. They call him religious, when he is merely conscience-stricken. But religion itself, far from inculcating alarm and terror, says, in the words of the Angel, "Fear not;" for such is His mercy, while Almighty God has poured about us His glory, yet it is a consolatory glory, for it is the light of His glory in the Face of Jesus Christ. Thus the heavenly herald tempered the too dazzling brightness of the Gospel on that first Christmas. The glory of God at first alarmed the shepherds, so he added the tidings of good, to work in them a more wholesome and happy temper. Then they rejoiced.

"Fear not," said the Angel, "for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." And then, when he had finished his announcement, "suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." Such were the words which the blessed spirits who minister to Christ and His saints, spoke on that gracious night to the shepherds, to rouse them out of their cold and famished mood into great joy; to teach them that they were objects of God's love as much as the greatest of men on earth; nay more so, for to them first He had imparted the news of what that night was happening. His Son was then born into the world. Such events are told to friends and intimates, to those whom we love, to those who will sympathize with us, not to strangers. How could Almighty God be more gracious, and show His favor more impressively to the lowly and to the friendless, than by hastening (if I may use the term) to confide the great, the joyful secret to the shepherds keeping watch over their sheep by night?

The Angel then gave the first lesson of mingled humility and joyfulness; but an infinitely greater one was behind in the event itself, to which he directed the shepherds, in that birth itself of the Holy Child Jesus. This he intimated in these words: "Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling-clothes, lying in a manger." Doubtless, when they heard the Lord's Christ was born into the world, they would look for Him in kings' palaces. They would not be able to fancy that He had become one of themselves, or that they might approach Him; therefore the Angel thus warned them where to find Him, not only as a sign, but as a lesson also.

"The shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us." Let us too go with them, to contemplate that second and greater miracle to which the Angel directed them, the Nativity of Christ. St. Luke says of the Blessed Virgin, "She brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger." God of heaven and earth, the Divine Word, who had been in glory with the Eternal Father from the beginning, He was at this time born into this world of sin as a little infant. He was at this time, laying in His mother's arms, to all appearances helpless and powerless, and was wrapped by Mary in an infant's bands, and laid to sleep in a manger. The Son of God Most High, Who created the world, became flesh, though remaining what He was before. He became flesh as truly as if He had ceased to be what He was, and had actually been changed into flesh. He submitted to be the offspring of Mary, to be taken up in the hands of a mortal, to have a mother's eye fixed upon Him, and to be cherished at a mother's bosom. A daughter of man became the Mother of God—to her, indeed, an unspeakable gift of grace; but in Him what condescension! What an emptying of His glory to become man! and not only a helpless infant, though that were humiliation enough, but to inherit all the infirmities and imperfections of our nature which were possible to a sinless soul. What were His thoughts, if we may venture to use such language or admit such a reflection concerning the Infinite, when human feelings, human sorrows, human wants, first became His? What a mystery is there from first to last in the Son of God becoming Man! Yet in proportion to the mystery is the grace and mercy of it; and as is the grace, so is the greatness of the fruit of it.

Let us steadily contemplate the mystery, and say whether any consequence is too great to follow from so marvellous a dispensation; any mystery so great, any grace so overpowering, as that which is already manifested in the incarnation and death of the Eternal Son. Were we told that the effect of it would be to make us as seraphim, that we were to ascend as high as He descended low—would that startle us after the Angel's news to the shepherds? And this indeed is the effect of it, so far as such words may be spoken without impiety. Men we remain, but not mere men, but gifted with a measure of all those perfections which Christ has in fullness, partaking each in his own degree of His Divine Nature so fully, that the only reason, so to speak, why His saints are not really like Him, is that it is impossible—that He is the Creator, and they His creatures; yet still so, that they are all but Divine, all that they can be made without violating the incommunicable majesty of the Most High. Surely in proportion to His glory in His power of glorifying; so that to say that through Him we shall be made all but gods—though it is to say, that we are infinitely below the adorable Creator—still is to say, and truly, that we shall be higher than every other being in the world; higher than Angels or Archangels, Cherubim or Seraphim—that is, not here, or in ourselves, but in heaven and in Christ:—Christ, already the first-fruits of our race, God and man, having ascended high above all creatures, and we through His grace tending to the same high blessedness, having the earnest of His glory given here and, if we be found faithful, the fullness of it hereafter.

If all these things be so, surely the lesson of joy which the Incarnation gives us is as impressive as the lesson of humility. St. Paul gives us the one lesson in his Epistle to the Philippians: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:" and St. Peter gives us the lesson of joyfulness: "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory: receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls."

Take these thoughts with you, my brethren, to your homes on this Christmas Day; let them be with you in your family and social meetings. It is a day of joy: it is good to be joyful—it is wrong to be otherwise. For one day we may put off the burden of our polluted consciences and rejoice in the perfections of our Savior Christ, without thinking of ourselves, without thinking of our own miserable uncleanness; but contemplating His glory, His righteousness, His purity, His majesty, His overflowing love. We may rejoice in the Lord, and in all His creatures see Him. We may enjoy His temporal bounty, and partake the pleasant things on earth with Him in our thoughts; we may rejoice in our friends for His sake, loving them most especially because He has loved them.

"God has not appointed us unto wrath, but to obtain salvation through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him." Let us seek the grace of a cheerful heart, an even temper, sweetness, gentleness, and brightness of mind, as walking in His light, and by His grace. Let us pray Him to give us the spirit of ever-abundant, ever-springing love, which overpowers and sweeps away the vexations of life by its own richness and strength, and which above all things unites us to Him Who is the fountain and the center of all mercy, loving-kindness and joy.