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Bishop Koenig Christmas homily: It is the story of God’s great love for us

Deacon Joe Cilia, Bishop William Koenig and Father Brian Lewis celebrate Christmas Mass at St. Jude's. Dialog photo/Michael Short

I recently heard a funny little story of a mother who complained one day to her own mother, that it was getting harder and harder to get her teen-aged sons and daughters to write a thank you note for the gifts that they receive at Christmas.  The grandmother told her daughter not to worry about it, she would take care of it.  Well Christmas arrived and all of the teens did not just write a note by they stopped by their grandmother’s house within a week of Christmas to say thank-you.  Their mother was incredulous and called her mother to find out how she, in her grandmotherly wisdom, was able to accomplish something at which she had been so unsuccessful.  “It was easy,” said the grandmother, “I sent each of them a card with a check in it.  But I did not bother signing the check.”

As I celebrate today my first Christmas as the Bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington, I do not need a wise grandmother inducing me to say thank-you.  As some of you might know, up until six months ago I was serving the Church on Long Island as a priest.  It was only in the past year that I was called to serve the Diocese of Wilmington as your Bishop.  In this past July, I was ordained a bishop at St. Elizabeth’s in Wilmington and began serving here.  As I look back over the past six months, I am so deeply grateful for the blessing of being here.  As I have traveled to the various parishes in our Diocese for Sunday and weekday Masses, Confirmation and school visits, meetings with priests, religious, seminarians, diocesan staff and laity, I have experienced again and again the vibrant faith, rich history and generous spirit of the Catholic faith in the Diocese of Wilmington.  I thank you for welcoming me and pray that I might serve you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and the people of Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland worthily and effectively.

Having had the opportunity to say thank you, I invite you take a moment to reflect on the story of that first Christmas as told to us in today’s readings.  It is the story of God’s great love for us. In our first reading today, the prophet Isaiah announced 700 years before the birth of Jesus the promise of a Savior.  He wrote: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”  Our second reading is from the Letter to Titus and it was written after the birth of Jesus.  This reading reflects upon what has taken place in God becoming human and the writer of this letter tells us that “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”  And in the Gospel, St. Luke tells us how the promise revealed through Isaiah is fulfilled and the grace written of in the letter to Titus is made visible.  It is in the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago.  Our voices rightfully sing “Joy to the World,” and our hearts exult at “a new and glorious morn” for today “God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of His Heaven.”  In a word, the story of that first Christmas is the story of God who is love becoming love incarnate. In a world in which people are persecuted for practicing their faith, where military force threatens the independence of nations to determine their own future, where the effects of Covid cause anxiety and threaten the health of people, where famine and natural disasters impact and even destroy the lives of many and where moral values are dismissed as being purely relative, we especially look to God’s love for strength and consolation.

May we not, however, just stop there.  May we also see how God looks not only to console and strengthen us but invites us to be part of his salvific plan.  While Emmanuel, God with us, surely came as a Savior 2,000 years ago, it was in the form of an infant.  As an infant, God was dependent and reliant on human parents.  It was a birth made possible by the faith-filled response of Mary and Joseph to God’s plan of salvation.  We see this in Mary saying “yes” to the angel Gabriel’s question of whether she would consent to being the mother of God’s only son.  We see this in Joseph’s “yes” to whether he would consent to taking Mary as his wife after she had been found with child but before they had lived together.  We see this in the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.  We see this in their pilgrimages to Jerusalem and their devotion to practicing their Jewish faith. Yes, Christmas is the story of God’s great love for us.  But it is also the story of how God prepared for this moment and entered into this moment through the faith-filled “yesses” of prophets and two seemingly ordinary people.  And it is the blueprint of how we too are called to respond to God’s invitation to not only know God’s love but be part of God’s salvific love.  On Christmas Day, sixteen years ago, Pope Benedict issued the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, God is Love.  In this encyclical, he reminded us: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”  With the birth of Jesus, human life has a new horizon and we are invited by God to say “yes” in directing our lives in this new direction.

Bishop Koenig greets Christmas morning parishioners at St. Jude the Apostle. Dialog photo/Michael Short

Does not life change, humanly speaking, with the arrival of a baby.  A woman becomes a mother with the arrival of a baby.  A man becomes a father with the arrival of a baby.  A parent…a grandparent.  A boy or girl…a brother or a sister.  I became an uncle with the arrival of my niece.

Perhaps you have seen the Geico Insurance commercial which features a football game in which suddenly a football player wheels a baby carriage onto the turf where the game is taking place.  The announcers are incredulous as the football players stop the game in order to burp the baby or make faces at the infant.  They are no longer football players but care-givers and ogling admirers. As they are reacting to the baby, however, the commercial ends with the player supposedly holding the baby removing the blanket in which the baby was presumably wrapped and revealing that he is actually holding the football and with that he runs into the endzone for a touchdown.  While Geico sees it as a call for no more trick plays, I see it as evidence that even a football game and its players are changed with the arrival of a baby.

We are changed when a baby comes into our lives.  We act differently.  We see our lives differently.  We become different people. Now if that is the case when it comes to a human baby, how much more so is this in the case of the infant savior of whom the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”?

Bishop Koenig at St. Jude’s on Christmas morning. Dialog photo/Michael Short

I referred to Pope Benedict a few moments ago.  In 1968, long before he, Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope, he wrote a catechesis on Christianity.  He likened the incarnation, the event of God entering humanity as an infant, to a genetic mutation that forever changed who we are as human beings and our relationship with God. He expressed in this manner: “Faith sees in Jesus the man in whom — on the biological plane–the next evolutionary leap, as it were, has been accomplished.”  Yes, the light of that first Christmas morning brought not just a new day, but an entirely different level of human existence and our relationship with God our creator.

May we as disciples of Christ give grateful thanks and praise for the love of our God who emptied himself and took on our human flesh.  But may we not stop there.  May we also hear God’s invitation and be strengthened in our response in following the example of Mary and Joseph and say, as they did, “yes” to God’s salvific plan.  May we say “yes” to living the new life that has come to us through the incarnation of the Word of God.  May we say “yes” by offering forgiveness to the one who has hurt us, tolerance to the one who drives us crazy, patience to the one who is never satisfied, kindness to the one who is neglected and truth to the one who is misguided. May our “yes” to God take place in our homes, our schools, our playgrounds and our workplaces.

May we give thanks. May we say “yes.” And may we join the angels in proclaiming that “a savior has been born for [us] who is Christ and Lord.”