SEEING TRULY, GRASPING FULLY (Christmas Day)

Catholic Homily/Reflection
Solemnity of the Birth of Christ

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Preaching during the Christmas liturgy is a truly challenging one for a variety of reasons. For one, there are four different liturgical moments that revolve around Christmas: the Vigil Mass, Midnight Mass, Dawn Mass, and the Mass during the day, each of which points to a second reason – the sheer richness of the readings, the breadth and depth of insights contained therein, and the unfathomable mystery they all try to shed light on. Having been preaching for the last 24 Christmases, I would personally add a third, no less difficult, challenge … the utter exhaustion and tiredness of the adults in our midst, battered limp and listless by so much partying, stressful shopping (particularly if one’s budget is tight), and being at their wits’ end trying to guess what gifts to whomever that will most likely not end up in the recycle bin.

No, I am not speaking about the GUI icon that made Bill Gates the richest man in the world. I mean the real, existential recycle bin that explains why certain gifts get to you with mall tags that are simply suspiciously a tad too yellowish and brittle for Christmas comfort! Recycled gifts … This is THE phenomenon par excellence in a consumer machinery that is our contemporary society, that churns out a lot more choices than people can handle. We live in a world of infinite choices. Decades ago, (ancient for millennium kids’ standards), choices multiplied only in the arena of soaps, cosmetics, and grooming products. The sheer variety of “flavored” bath soaps alone is mind-boggling. In America, we have peaches and chocolates that are not meant to be put on the table, but on the washbasin. For more than a decade now, enterprising businessmen in the Philippines have been raking it in selling papayas not to control one’s libidinal urges, but to smoothen facial skin texture. And that Mexican staple called guacamole, otherwise known to the rest of us as avocado, has also become the “secret” ingredient in facial beauty products. Want some toothpaste? What kind? What color? For what purpose? An endless array of products will make a harried shopper go into panic mode and break out in cold sweat, temporarily unable to decide.

Faced with such a glut of items to choose from, small wonder, people end up rejecting – and recycling – gifts they receive. Gifts that used to be much awaited for their usefulness, (because, in the first place, consumer goods were few and hard to come by), for the sheer thoughtfulness of the giver, valued to such an extent that recipients of yore would try their best to “wear” or “use” that valued item for the giver to see and thus, feel good about having given a gift, have now gone the way of the electronic digital address book. They are deleted at will, at the push of a teeny, weeny button. They go the way of the digital recycle bin, stowed in cybermemory, or given a semi-permanent frozen status in a partitioned hard disk, compressed for long-term storage. They are not exactly discarded. They are just stored, for possible future retrieval. The gift, thus, while received, remains unappreciated, kept in virtual storage, and then retrieved when another round of frantic and frenetic shopping for the next “holiday season” – whatever that means – comes around again.

What, then, do we make of Christmas? How, then, ought we to react given the fact that Christmas has to do with the greatest gift ever given, the greatest gift ever received by people who do not even merit to be given such a gift? “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son …” What then are we to do with a celebration in which many people forget or conveniently set-aside the original reason, and yet retain the season’s “greetings” and mirth-making? How does one justify sincere gift-giving when all people have is “Happy Federal Holiday” cheers? What does one do with a Santa laden with gifts and armed with a big, big heart exploding with love and tenderness for poor, little rich kids who can’t seem to make out what’s so holy in singing “I’m dreaming of a white … holiday!”

This, now, is the biggest challenge of them all. This morning, when all the tinsel wrapped gifts have been opened, when all you want to do is throw yourself down your cozy bed to sleep off all the pre-Christmas tension and stress, when just about the only happy creatures on earth are the kids who (at least in the Philippines) are dashing through the soot-filled thoroughfares in pursuit of their hiding godparents who owe them a thing or two from two or more Christmases past! With gift-inventory and appraisal over and done with, this Christmas morning, perhaps we can step aside from the “city-sidewalks- busy- sidewalks- dressed-in-holiday-style” hype and open the ORIGINAL GIFT that made all gift-giving meaningful and symbolic.

I invite you to unwrap this gift for a few short minutes for as long as your physical and mental exhaustion can allow you. I promise not to disappoint you. I promise not to short-change you.

The gift that I am talking of started with a preview. Biblical language that antedated Hollywood films calls it a prophecy. Isaiah, our insider and source, (our Cristy-per-minute, for my Philippine readers, or Nancy O’Dell and Billy Bush for my American audience), speaks to us excitedly, more excited than your hyperactive kids today, of what is to come. He has some kind of a foot fetish, and focuses not on the Ferragamo shoes, but on the feet: “How beautiful are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation!” What is the good news all about? Better than what your children’s Santa can ever put in their stockings... infinitely better than anything any man, woman or child can even dream of … “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard… this is what the Lord has prepared for those who love Him.” Isaiah gives fast moving MPEG clips of what is to come: “The Lord restoring Zion …the Lord comforts His people …the Lord has bared His holy arm … all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God!”

Push the skip button (or fast forward for ancient readers like this writer), and see what bytes the letter writer to the Hebrews has to add to our current file folder. He recovers and updates Isaiah’s bytes, and converts said file to a language compatible with early Christian time CPU processors. In effect he shows us that God spoke formerly in partial and various ways through the prophets. But now, he says, God has spoken directly in the person of His Son. Christ, he in effect says, is not just a series of 1s and 0s, a mime of someone else. Christ is God, the “refulgence of God’s glory, the very imprint of His being.”

It takes a little effort and attention to unwrap our gift this morning. Unlike the gifts you gave and the gifts you received, no tinsel, silver, and gold wrappings were used. No, he came “wrapped in swaddling clothes,” put not in a dainty box, but “laid in a manger” – a manger, mind you, a place where animals take their fill.

But you cannot judge a book by its cover, as they say. You don’t want to miss the gift for the wrappers, the forest for a tree. To unwrap this gift, you must have the wit and wisdom of Forrest Gump, and his infinite capacity for wonder, surprise, and joy. You need to be capable of being utterly happy with just a simple, little box of chocolates, “for ya just never know what you’r gonna git.”

John the Evangelist comes to our help in our gargantuan effort to unwrap the gift of aeons, the gift of all gifts – the gift that made Christmas a holiday, that made our “holidays” worth being called “happy,” and worth “jingling our bells” for as we dash through life snowed in by a culture of death, a culture of violence, a culture of terrorism and consumerism, and consequently, a culture devoid of hope.

Slowly and methodically – if theologically – John unwraps the mystery of the Word. Going beyond the romanticism of the child born and laid in a manger, surrounded by glossy-eyed mules and asses, venerated by well-coiffed and well-dressed “kings,” John soars high in the firmament of theological reflection, and gives us the equivalent of a “powerbook” account of the ultimate meaning of what happened in Bethlehem. Isaiah’s preview has now become concrete reality. Where Isaiah spoke of the coming “light,” John confirms that indeed, “the light [now] shines in the darkness.”

This morning, whilst you are all tired and sleepy and just about ready to hit the sack again, Isaiah, the letter writer to the Hebrews, and John help us to see truly what transpired, to see the totality of the meaning of the events surrounding the first Christmas. We need updated processors to understand it all. We need faster CPUs to process the meaning of it all. That updated processor that we all need to use today, as did the three figures in today’s readings is the processor, the eyeglasses – if you will – of faith. These eyes of faith will allow us to see the fullness of God’s revelation in and through Christ. This is the faith that will help us see truly and grasp fully the glory of God becoming one with us, like us, for us, in the person of this newborn King.

A merry and blessed Christmas to each and everyone of you!

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