Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas: Mass During the Day

The Web browser programs that we use
to navigate the World Wide Web on the internet
typically have an option under the "view" menu
that is called something like "source" or "page source."
If you click on this, it reveals to you
that the beautiful and elegant (or ugly and confusing)
web page that you are looking at
is actually made up of a series of codes
written in a language called HTML
(hypertext markup language)
that web designers use to tell your computer
where to insert pictures,
what text to bold or italicize,
where to break paragraphs, and so forth.
It doesn’t have the "user-friendliness"
of a well-designed web page,
it doesn’t have the attractive details
that catch the eye,
but there is something fascinating,
at least for those with a certain type of mind,
in getting a glimpse "behind the scenes,"
to see the web page from the perspective of its designer,
to get a sense of the complexity underlying
what presents itself so attractively on our computer screens.

Today’s Gospel is a bit like clicking
the "view page source" menu on the Christmas story.
According to the tradition of the Church,
on Christmas morning we do not read
Luke’s familiar account of the Christmas story,
but rather the prologue with which John’s Gospel opens:
"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God."

John does not offer us the eye-catching, user-friendly details
that we find in Luke:
no inn without a vacancy,
no Christ child placed in the manger,
no angels,
no the shepherds.
Instead of Jesus, we are told of the Word:
the Word who is in the beginning with God
and who, at the same time,
in some mysterious manner,
is God.
We are told that the world
came into being through this Word,
and yet does not know him.
And, perhaps most bafflingly of all,
we are told that the Word has become flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and has given power to become children of God
to those who believe in his name.

It can seem, at first, as baffling as HTML code.
But what John is offering us
is a glimpse "behind the scenes" of the Christmas story,
an opportunity to see from the perspective of its designer,
to get a sense of the deep mystery that underlies
what presents itself so attractively in Luke’s Gospel.

Most of us find our hearts moved
by the story of Joseph and the pregnant Mary,
homeless and unprotected.
We find attractive the simplicity of the image of Christ
born amidst the animals in the barn.
We thrill to the angels’ announcement to the shepherds:
"Glory to God in the highest
and peace to God’s people on earth!"

In comparison, John’s Gospel might seem cold and cerebral:
Luke gives us baby Jesus;
John gives us the eternal Word.

But we ought to realize
that they are both telling us the same story.
The child in the manger is the eternal Word,
who has taken on our flesh, our human nature,
so that we too might be God’s children.
John’s Gospel shows us the eternal source that lies behind
the moving, attractive, thrilling events in Bethlehem of Judea.

With a story as well known and pleasing
as Luke’s account of the nativity,
there is always the danger
that we might sentimentalize the entry of Christ into our world.
We can begin to think that Christmas is all about
babies with rosy cheeks
and shepherds with cute lambs
and angels that look like pretty ladies with wings and halos.
Our Gospel this morning reminds us
that Christmas is about God transacting
the serious and unsentimental business
of the world’s salvation.
Our glimpse behind the scenes in Bethlehem shows us
that Christmas is about God taking on our human nature
so that God,
through the bitter suffering of the cross
and the glory of the resurrection,
might bestow upon us a share in God’s own immortality.
As St. Athanasius of Alexandria put it:
God became human
so that human beings might become divine.

John’s Gospel reminds us that this is the real Christmas story.
And this glimpse behind the scenes
should lead us to marvel even more
that God would transact
such serious and unsentimental business
in the little town of Bethlehem,
by means of a young mother,
and some shepherds,
and a child.

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