I’ve heard it proclaimed for many years at Christmas night, and because it is so familiar to us, sometimes we may not really get the full sense of what is being proclaimed. We’re used to it, and so we almost do not really listen deeply. And then also we fail to understand that when Luke wrote this Gospel, and wrote this passage about the birth of Jesus, it was many years after Jesus had come into the world, and Luke was not writing a biography of Jesus or a history. He was writing a theological explanation of Jesus, a deeper sense of what this passage is.
Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent
And so what Luke does is draw from the Hebrew Scriptures and provides for us a deeper understanding of Jesus. In our first lesson tonight, we were told about a time in the history of the chosen people when they had been driven into exile, when they had lost everything, and in fact the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom were destroyed.
But in the midst of their sufferings and their trials, Isaiah tells them, “A child is born to us; a son is given us. The royal ornament is laid upon his shoulder and his name is proclaimed — a wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace.” Luke is evoking those words when he tells us about the son who is the descendent of David and is born in Bethlehem, David’s city. He wants us to see in this child the one who not only saves them from exile and from suffering and death, but who brings them the life of God — God’s very self. Jesus, Luke is telling us, is Savior, Messiah, and God.
And Luke also wants us to understand something about this Jesus, and so he anticipates what’s going to happen later in his Gospel by showing us how Jesus chose to be born among the poor, to be born among the homeless, those who had no place to stay, even being put into a manger, a feeding place for animals. Jesus, son of God, but utterly poor because he chose to be among those in our world who are poor. And in the Gospel of Luke, there is a great emphasis on Jesus’ ministry to the poor.
He also emphasizes that it was to shepherds — the first ones who received the good news. And shepherds at that time were not looked upon benignly as we would think of them today because we have come to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd. They were almost outcasts, not full members of society, and they’re the first ones that God proclaims the good news about Jesus.
And so we find in this Gospel lesson tonight an anticipation of the whole life of Jesus that Luke has put together in a very beautiful way, very memorable way, that we can now see in the birth of Jesus that took place over 2,000 years ago the fulfillment of those prophecies of the Old Testament, showing us that God is always with us. God is Emmanuel, God with us.
But as we reflect on this birth of the child who is the son of God, as Luke makes so clear, we also must remind ourselves of why Jesus came, why the son of God entered into human history, and sometimes we talk about it as God redeeming us from our sins. And in a certain sense that’s true, but not in a sense that Jesus had to pay a price to a God who was forcing him to undergo that horrible death on the cross. It wasn’t that; it was rather that Jesus was showing us the way how even through death can come new life.
And Jesus came to show us what we must do if we’re going to bring about the peace in the world that is proclaimed in the Gospel tonight, that Jesus is the prince of peace. And I think if you want to really understand why Jesus came, you can go to the letter of St. Paul to the church at Philippi, and you find there a passage in the second chapter of that letter where Paul is pleading with the people of Philippi to come together in harmony and peace.
This is the community that Paul had established, but they had begun to fight among themselves. There were dissensions in their midst and they were attacking one another, and so Paul pleads with them: “If I may advise you in the name of Jesus, and if you can hear it as the voice of love, if we share the same spirit and are capable of mercy and compassion, then I beg of you, make me very happy. Have one love, one spirit, one feeling. Do nothing through rivalry or vain conceit.”
Paul is pleading with them to come together, to be reconciled. And then he offers them the most important reason why they should do that, because he said, “Your attitude, your mind, your understanding should be the same as that of Christ, who, though he was God, emptied himself, became human — fully human — gave himself over to death, even to the ignominious death on the cross. And therefore he was exalted above all creation, and became the son of God in power.”
What Paul is telling us is that Jesus came to bring about reconciliation. Though he was God, he did not think that divinity is something to be clung to, but became one of us, entered into our human history. That is the most profound kind of compassion that anyone could show: where Jesus crosses the barrier between divine and human and brings us together.
And that’s the model of how we should act in our society, in our world, and there are so many ways in which we do find ourselves in conflict, in hateful situations. You need only look around the world very quickly and you can see places where people of one religion are destroying people of another. You can look in our own country. You can see the terrible hatred that continues to exist among our races, black and white. Even within families sometimes there are broken relationships.
Jesus was willing to become one of us so that he could heal that broken relationship between humankind and God, and then Jesus asks us to model our lives after his. Though he was God, he emptied himself, became one of us — son of Mary, but then also son of God in power. We must imitate that way of Jesus. Reach across those barriers that separate us from one another. Reach out to the poor, draw them in. Reach out to people of other races. Reach out to people of other religions; come together.
Jesus entered into human history to bring unity between God and all of humankind, and asks us to reach out to one another in compassion, in love, to bring about reconciliation. And so tonight as we celebrate the birth of Jesus in our midst, I hope we will try to remember that he entered into human history so that he could bring together God and all of us in a loving human family. And then imitate that action of Jesus — reach out, be compassionate, try to understand one another and love one another.
And if we do that, then it will truly be fulfilled what the angels proclaimed that night: “Peace on earth for all those who love God, all those of good will.” Pray that that will happen. Change our lives so that we reach out, and then we will come to know the deep peace that Jesus has brought into our world, into our lives.
[Homily given Dec. 24 at St. Albertus Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]