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Mass is greatest way of being in presence, paying homage to our newborn King — Bishop Koenig Christmas homily

Bishop Koenig at Holy Savior in Ocean City, Md., on Christmas Eve.

Several weeks ago, I came across a quote from St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of our diocese, that has remained with me since reading it. It centers around today’s Gospel from St. Luke and, while the words were written in a letter four centuries ago, they are as relevant and probing today as I would think they were when St. Francis first penned them. I hope you too are touched by the following reflection of St. Francis de Sales, the Gentleman Saint:

“At the birth of the Savior the shepherds heard the songs of the heavenly spirits, but sacred scripture does not say that they were heard by the Madonna and Saint Joseph, who were closer to the little Babe. Instead, they saw the Divine Child trembling with the cold, his eyes bathed in tears! And what do we prefer — to stay in that dark stable which echoes with the cries of the Babe, or to be outside listening with the shepherds to the angelic choir? Certainly, we should [choose] the former, because it is better, even in the darkness, to stay close to Jesus.”

As we joyfully celebrate Christmas, let us reflect upon the invitation not to stay listening to the songs of heavenly spirits around us but to go and stay with the Babe whose eyes are bathed in tears and trembles with the cold. We begin with the songs of heavenly spirits around us. The angels from on high announcing to the shepherds that a magnificent birth was taking place was undoubtedly a breathtaking sight. St. Luke tells us that the “glory of God shone around them.”  This is the time of the year when Christmas carols lift our hearts, beautiful Christmas cards decorate our mantels, Christmas lights sparkle in the night and we are warmed by the memories of past Christmas gatherings with family and friends. And, while I daresay that none of us will encounter the angelic hosts that those long-ago shepherds encountered as they tended their sheep, the message of God’s magnificent love in emptying himself and becoming human is testified to by the sights and sounds and memories of this “season of magic.” The question that St. Francis asks us is whether we will stay where we are entranced, entertained and exhilarated or whether we will join Mary and Joseph in a place where the angelic choirs were not heard but where we encounter the love of a God who shivers in the cold. Will we say “yes” to going to the places where we do not experience immediate gratification, where our humble service is not greatly appreciated or even perhaps noticed, where our love and concern is not reciprocated.

We enter the darkness of the dark stable which echoes with the cries of the Babe when we take time for prayer and meditation and open ourselves up to trying to listen to God’s promptings instead of only telling our wants to God. We enter the dark stable which echoes with the cries of the Babe when we encounter the voice of God through scripture or when we read and reflect upon the life of the saints and how they lived lives of holiness in the midst of the challenges of their times. We enter the dark stable which echoes with the cries of the Babe when we do not just go with the flow of today’s worldly values but look to the wisdom of the church, the Body of Christ, which, guided by the Holy Spirit, helps us to discern how we can live God’s call to holiness. We enter the dark stable which echoes with the cries of the Babe when we open our hearts and lives up to those who suffer violence, injustice, poverty and discrimination. We enter the stable when we see the suffering of people in Ukraine, the Middle East, Central America, Asia and parts of Africa and know that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer.

Bishop William Koenig celebrated Mass Christmas morning at St. Edmond in Rehoboth Beach. He is being greeted by local Rehoboth Beach parishioner Adelaide Auwerda. Dialog photo/Michael Short

May we, please God, not remain with the angelic choirs but come and, with Mary and Joseph, encounter the newborn Babe not only this Christmas day but throughout the new year.  In his account of the birth of Jesus, St. Luke tells us what the birth of Jesus means for us. In his account, he refers three times to the manger in which Jesus was laid. A manger is, of course, the place where the straw that is the food for animals is placed. This food will allow the animals to grow and flourish, to live and function. In telling us that the baby Jesus was placed in a manger, St. Luke is telling us that Jesus comes to be our food, He comes to sustain and strengthen us. It is a reference to the Eucharist, the greatest way that we will come into the presence of Jesus Christ who is truly present, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity at Mass and in tabernacles throughout the world. In the fifth century writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria, we read that Jesus is “placed like fodder in a manger … By now approaching the manger, even his own table, we find no longer fodder, but the bread from heaven…”

As you may know, we as a church in the United States are in the midst of the first year of a three-year period of Eucharistic Revival. Perhaps COVID restrictions, familial and social obligations or other factors have altered your participation at Mass. Maybe you’ve just gotten out the habit of coming to Mass on Sunday. Or maybe you come to Mass weekly or even daily.  Whatever your situation is, I especially welcome you here today and thank you for being here. I also encourage you to remember that for 2,000 years the Mass is the greatest way of being in the presence and paying homage to our newborn King. As St. Luke reminds us, it is the way by which we will be sustained for the life which, by virtue of the incarnation of God, we are now called to live. It has been said that the incarnation did not rescue us but it remade us. Another Church father, St. Athanasius stated, in the fourth century, that “God became man, so that man might become God.” We celebrate today the love of our God who empties himself and takes on our human flesh, who trembles in the cold night air, who feeds the hungry and goes in search of the lost and forsaken, who washes the feet of his disciples and forgives his persecutors, who lays down his life for the many. It is through the Eucharist that we are strengthened, changed and transformed so that in the words of St. Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

As we celebrate and enjoy the beauty of Christmas, may we be like the humble shepherds of long ago. May we leave the splendor of angelic hosts and go to the place where God from God, light from light, true God from true God has come down from heaven. And while we appreciate and enjoy the beauty that surrounds us, may we also know, in the words of St. Francis de Sales, that it is “better, even in the darkness, to stay close to Jesus.”