Christmas Isaiah 52:7–10; Hebrews 1:1–6; John 1:1–18
Lamplighters If Jesus is to he born into our modern world, it must be through us. During World War II plane travel and television were still in their infancy. One Christmas Day during the war a young family father, mother, and children was outside making a snowman.
Suddenly a plane passed directly overhead. The mother shouted to the children, That’s the plane your uncle is on. Let’s all wave.Maybe he’ll see us. The children jumped up and down, waved frantically, and shouted at the top of their voices.
Seconds later, after the plane had passed, the tiniest child turned to her daddy and asked, Daddy, how do people climb up to the sky to get into the planes? Her daddy explained that passengers didn’t have to climb to the sky to get into the planes. The planes came down from the sky to the passengers.
That story is a beautiful illustration of what Christmas is all about. Christmas celebrates the fact that we don’t have to climb up to the sky to get to God. God has come down to earth to us.
Christmas celebrates the fact that the infinite God, at a point in time, crossed an unimaginable border and personally entered our world. Before such an undreamable dream, the intellect reels.
Fortunately, a Christian writer has helped our understanding of this mystery. He simply said, “Well, loves does such things”
And so 2,000 years ago, like a great star, Jesus came down from heaven and lit up the darkness of the world.
The first reading of Midnight Mass opens with these words of Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. They lived in a land of shadows, but now light is shining on them. Isaiah 9:2
And the gospel reading of today’s Mass speaks of Jesus as the real light . . . that comes . . . and shines on all. It adds: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.
The Christmas image of Jesus is that of a light shining in the darkness. This image took on a remarkable meaning for Viktor Frankl, a Nazi prisoner in World War II.
One morning, very early, he and some other prisoners were digging in the cold, hard ground. Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning:
The dawn was gray around us; gray was the sky above; gray the snow in the pale light of dawn; gray the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and gray their faces. . . . I was struggling to find a reason for my sufferings, my slow dying.
As Frankl struggled in the miserable cold to make sense of his suffering, suddenly he became totally convinced that there was a reason, even though he didn’t fully comprehend it. Frankl describes what happened then:
At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if it were painted there, in the mist of the miserable gray.
At that moment, there flashed into Frankl’s mind the words of today’s gospel:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.
Frankl says that experience radically changed his entire prison life. It gave him hope, where before he had only despair.
Viktor Frankl’s experience illustrates a second point about Christmas. Christmas celebrates the fact that when Jesus entered our darkened world, so did hope.
Before Jesus entered our world, people were in a situation much like Frankl’s. They were struggling to find a reason for their suffering, for their slow death. After Jesus entered our world, people suddenly saw there was a reason for their suffering, even though they couldn’t comprehend it fully.
And this brings us to the third and final point about Christmas.
What Jesus was to the world of his time, he wants us to be to the world of our time. We too must be a beam of light in the midst of darkness. We too must be a ray of hope in the midst of despair.
The English writer John Ruskin left us with a splendid image of what Jesus wants us to be in our world.
In Ruskin’s time, electricity hadn’t been discovered yet. City streets were lit at night by gas lamps. City lamplighters had to go from lamp to lamp, lighting them with a flaming torch.
One night, when Ruskin was a very old man, he was sitting in front of a window in his house. Across the valley was a street on a hillside. There, Ruskin could see the torch of a lamplighter lighting lamps as he went.
Because of the darkness, Ruskin couldn’t see the lamplighter. He could see only his torch and the trail of lights it left behind him.
After a few minutes, Ruskin turned to the person next to him and said in effect:
That’s a good illustration of a Christian. People may never have known him. They may never have met him. They may never even have seen him. But they know he passed through their world by the trail of lights he left lit behind him.
Christmas is an invitation for each one of us to be for our world what Jesus was for his world: a beam of light in the midst of darkness, a ray of hope in the midst of despair. If Jesus is to be born into today's world, it must be through us. We must be the beam of light in the midst of darkness. We must be the ray of hope in the midst of despair.
To the extent that we heed the invitation of Christmas, to that extent will the world receive the gift of Christmas: peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
Let’s close by praying the responsorial psalm from the Dawn Mass of Christmas. Please listen and follow along with me in silence:
The Lord is king; let the earth rejoice; let the many isles be glad. The heavens proclaim his justice, and all peoples see his glory.
Light dawns for the just; and gladness, for the upright of heart. Be glad in the Lord, you just, and give thanks to his holy name.
Series II Christmas Isaiah 52:7–10; Hebrews 1:1–6; John 1:1–18
Midnight visitors We must be a light to our world, just as Jesus was to his world.
There was a prisoner-of-war camp near the town of Warrington, England, during World War II.
Like all English towns during the war years, Warrington was blacked out at night to avert possible enemy air attacks. When Christmas approached, no colored lights lit up trees and windows.
And so, as the Catholics of Warrington trudged through the streets on Christmas Eve to Midnight Mass, no Christmas lights lit their way.
By 11:30 the church will filled up except for the front three rows on each side. Promptly at 11:50 a group of German and Italian prisoners of war filed into church, flanked by armed guards, and filled the empty rows.
At 11:55 Fr. Rochford, the parish priest, appeared and announced to the congregation that he had bad news. The Mass would have to be celebrated without music. The parish’s only organist had taken ill. A groan rose up from the congregation.
At this point a German prisoner turned to a guard and said something. The guard went up and spoke to Fr. Rochford. The priest nodded his head in agreement.
Then the prisoner went over to the organ and sat down. Slowly and reverently he began to play in a way that brought tears to the eyes of everyone in the church.
That night, despite the darkened streets and windows, the spirit of Christmas lit up the town of Warrington in a way that the people would never forget.
That night in Warrington, people friends and enemies saw each other as God intended them to be: one family.
That night in Warrington, the light of a great star the spirit of Jesus lit up the darkened countryside.
That night in Warrington, the words of the prophet Isaiah, from the first reading for Midnight Mass, came alive for the people in a beautiful way. Isaiah wrote:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. They lived in a land of shadows, but now light is shining on them. Isaiah 9:2
One of the greatest Christians of modern times was Toyohiko Kagawa of Japan.
Until recent years, his widow often received Western visitors who wanted to learn more about her remarkable husband.
Kagawa’s parents died when he was a small child. He was raised by relatives who mistreated him in many ways. In time he contracted tuberculosis and was dying.
Then one day he had an experience very much like the one Saint Paul encountered on the road to Damascus. A great light flooded the room he was in. Kagawa was overwhelmed by a feeling of God’s presence.
The experience left him transformed not only spiritually but also physically.
Kagawa’s response to the experience was just as dramatic as was Saint Paul’s. He devoted the rest of his life to helping Japan’s poor and neglected. Kagawa wanted to share with them the great hope that came into his life on that day, when his room was flooded with the light of the Risen Christ.
As that light dispelled the darkness of his world and brought hope to it, so he wanted to do the same for the poor and the neglected of the slums of Japan.
Before Jesus entered our world, people were like Kagawa in his room: sick, dying, and without hope. Their lives were filled with darkness and despair.
After Jesus entered our world, people were like Kagawa after his religious experience: transformed and filled with hope and joy. About a month before Christmas in 1965, a power failure of New York City’s Consolidated Edison blacked out the entire city of New York.
The disaster occurred at just about the height of the evening winter rush hour, when darkness was beginning to descend upon the city.
Thousands of commuters were caught in tunnels and trains. Thousands were trapped in high rises. Thousands were trapped in crowded elevators between floors of tall buildings. What amazed the citizens of New York, especially the police of the city, was the response of the people to the blackout.
A few grew angry, and a few took advantage of the situation. But by and large, the people responded with amazing concern.
They helped one another. They worked together to assist the elderly in a special way.
You could hear singing on commuter trains and in darkened corridors of skyscrapers.
What was even more amazing was that crime was almost nonexistent during this period.
The blackout and the nearness to Christmas helped the people discover a dimension in themselves that they never knew they had. One reporter used the words of Isaiah to describe the miracle:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. They lived in a land of shadows, but now light is shining on them. Christmas is an invitation for each one of us to discover in ourselves a dimension of goodness, which we call Jesus Christ. It’s an invitation to let that dimension shine forth into the darkness of today’s world.
If Jesus is to be born anew into our modern world, it must be through us. We must let the Light of the World shine through us first, if we are to become a light to our world.
To the extent that we heed the invitation of Christmas, to that extent will our modern world receive the gift of Christmas: peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
Let’s close by praying the responsorial psalm for the Dawn Mass of Christmas. Please listen and follow along with me in silence:
The LORD is king! Earth, be glad! Rejoice, you islands of the seas! . . . The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the nations see his glory. . . .
Light shines on the righteous, and gladness on the good. All you that are righteous be glad because of what the LORD has done! Remember what the holy God had done, and give thanks to him. Psalm 97:1, 6, 11–12
Series III Christmas Isaiah 52:7–10; Hebrews 1:1–6; John 1:1–18
Christmas First step on the journey to the cross.
The word was in the world, but the world did not recognize him. He came to this own country, but his own people did not receive him. John 1:10–11
Mother Mary Coleman was a Maryknoll nun in the Philippines during World War II. She spent a good part of the war in a Japanese internment camp. After the war, she wrote:
The Japanese guards were kind to us. When they had enough to eat, we also had enough. It was only toward the end of the war that we did not have enough.
We had quite a lot of freedom within the camp. We even had a room set aside for prayer.
One of the Filipinos carved a fine wooden crucifix for the room and put it on the wall. The crucifix became a focus for our prayer. One of the guards often observed us, careful not to disturb us.
The Japanese have a great appreciation for meditation. You can see it in their gardens, many of them just for contemplation.
Most, however, know nothing of [the story of Jesus].
When Christmas came, some Filipinos carved a whole manger set for our prayer room, and we put it out quite early in Advent. . . .
Through the Christmas season, we often came to pray before the manger. As we did, the guard who watched us pray before the crucifix, observed us even more closely.
Once, as some of us were leaving the room, he pointed to Jesus in the manger and then to Jesus on the cross, and asked, “The same one?” I answered softly, “Yes the same one.”
Looking down at the manger and then up to the crucifix, he said, “I am sorry.” Quoted by Eugene LaVerdiere in “The Gospel in the Manger” in Church magazine for Winter ’95
This is a beautiful Christmas story. And it is especially appropriate for our Christmas liturgy.
First, it’s appropriate because of its setting. It takes place in a prison camp room, bare except for the crib and the cross.
The cross was made from pieces of old wood, which were probably found in some obscure corner of the camp.
Then somebody spent hours carving out the body of Jesus and attaching it lovingly to the cross.
The crib was also made from small pieces of scrap wood found lying around the camp. Again, someone spent hours carving the images of Jesus,Mary, and Joseph and the shepherds.
That bare prayer room in the prison camp reminds us of the bare stable in which Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
That bare, austere setting helps to focus our attention on what Christmas is all about.
It’s about the incredible mystery of God taking flesh and coming to live among us
It’s about the incredible mystery of God becoming one of us to teach us how much he loves us.
It’s about the incredible mystery of God living among us to teach us how to love one another as he loves us.
And this brings us to the second reason why the story is especially appropriate for our Christmas liturgy.
The crib and the cross, standing side-by-side in the prayer room, help us to focus our attention on something we tend to forget. And that is the connection between the crib and the cross. It is this:
The crib and the cross are intimately connected. They cannot be separated. The crib is the first step in the lifelong journey that will culminate on the cross. The same Jesus who begins life lying in a wooden manger will end life hanging on a wooden cross.
Jesus is God’s Christmas gift to the human race, to show us how much he loves us. Saint Augustine said of this gift:
What greater gift could God have given us than to take flesh and become a son of man that we might become a son of God? The third reason why the story of the Japanese guard and the camp prisoners is appropriate for our Christmas liturgy is this: It suggests an appropriate Christmas gift that we might give God in return for the great gift of his Son to us.
Before Christmas is over, we might retire to some quiet place and take three minutes to do what the Japanese guard did.
During the first minute, we gaze at the body of the infant Jesus lying in the manger, with Mary kneeling silently at his side.
During the second minute, we gaze at the body of the suffering Jesus hanging on the cross, with Mary standing silently beneath it. During the third minute we ask Mary the same question that the Japanese guard asked the prisoners.
After studying the infant Jesus in the crib and then at the suffering Jesus on the cross, we will say, “The same one?”
Then Mary will say to us, “Yes, the same one.”
And we will say to Mary what the guard said to Mother Coleman: “I am sorry.”
Mary will say back to us, “Don’t be sad! Be joyful!”
For we both know that Jesus has called you from all eternity to be for your world what he was for his world.
He has called you to tell the Good News of the crib and the cross to all the world. And what is this Good News?
It is the Good News that God loved us so much he gave his only Son to be our Savior.
It is the Good News of today’s feast, the Good News we celebrate in this liturgy.
It is this Good News that God wants us to take from this church and proclaim to our world by our faith, our example, and our prayerfulness.