The Nativity of the Lord - Keeping Watch by Night

Mass at Dawn

The shepherds, we are told, were keeping "night watch" over their flocks when the angels came to announce the good news of salvation. That's what it can feel like, being a believer in today's world... darkness all around and the call to duty, to watch and protect what is vulnerable and valuable. We search for and practice: peace in an increasingly hostile world; forgiveness when others hold grudges; simplicity while all around us there is spending and accumulating; concern for the needy whom society marginates and government policies neglect; frugality while our nation uses resources as if there were no tomorrow. We keep "night watch."

keepingwatchbynightThe story of Christ's birth reveals disruption and discomfort: the suspect pregnancy; a young couple forced to travel close to the expected birth date and an awkward setting for the delivery. These details show what will be true in the rest of Jesus' life.  

There is no room in the inn and this foretells that he will be rejected. The shepherds, the lowest class of people in this society, are the first to hear about his birth; Jesus will spend his life reaching out to the outcast. The manger was the place food was placed for the animals; the Eucharist will feed us with food for travelers, the displaced and those who hunger for God's peace in their lives. The Christmas story speaks to all who feel like outsiders and are having trouble keeping the loose ends of their lives from unraveling.

As we are touched once again by the mystery of Christmas, we should try to be more fully aware of the many ways that God continues to visit us, to touch us, to announce good news to us.

He comes in unexpected disguises, in strange circumstances, using unusual people and places. So often we do not recognize His coming into our lives. We see only the surface, the obvious. And we miss the opportunity to experience the nearness of our God.

We are told that those who witnessed the birth of this baby were amazed at the signs they saw.  That should be the same attitude we bring to the Christmas holydays of wonder and surprise. If we truly keep "Christ in our hearts" then we shouldn't need to worry about "Keeping Christ in Christmas."  We should learn again to recognize the presence of God in the ordinary people and things around us the innocence of our infants, in the questioning of our seven-year olds, in the energy and restlessness of our teenagers, in the silent embrace of lovers, in the courage and generosity of the young-married, in the freedom and dedication of single adults, in the wisdom and patience of parents, in the virtuosity of artists, in the industrious creativity of the business person, in the gifted hands, hearts and minds of those in the medical professions, in the fascinating agility of legal minds, in the peaceful strength of the aging, and in the quiet resignation of the suffering.

We, too, keep watch by night.  So much of the darkness and despair of the world comes from the sense of the absence God. We think He does not care; He does not hear our cries; He does not feel our pain. We so easily miss the moments of His rebirth in our lives.

Christmas is such a powerful, intimate reminder that, once we believe, we are never alone. Once we accept the miracle of God-made-man, then every facet of human life takes on a new dimension ...a Jesus-dimension. Everything is touched by His spirit of love, of peace, of hope. Only then will the words of Isaiah take meaning:  "The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light!"

The ancient story that is forever new breaks once again upon our restless world, and because the Word has been made flesh we are remade, lifted up, revived. Our distant, faceless, timeless God has taken a mortal body as His own. He has entered our time and come to our place. He has grown up among us, learned our language, played our games, sang our songs, shared our pain and sorrow, and embraced to the full our human fellowship.

The eternal Word needed to be spoken on our tongue. We needed someone heaven-sent to teach us to dare to call God "Abba, Father." The word "love" had to be translated in terms that the simplest one among us could understand: compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Jesus gave new meaning to the words "brother", "sister," "neighbor," "prodigal," "Samaritan." He shocked the world of the self-righteous by suggesting that the poor, the lepers, the prostitutes and the tax collectors would the very first to enter the kingdom of God. He tossed the pearl of forgiveness and hope to adulteresses and thieves. And He added the word "resurrection" to the vocabulary of faith.

The Word became flesh... and all flesh is transformed. The glory of God is lavished like golden sunshine on an infant in a manger, on shepherds, on Wiseman from the East...and all humanity understands better what it means to be stamped with the image of God.

In the quiet and promise of Christmas we rediscover the incredible power of God's love. We realize once again that He continues to be present to us, that He is aware of our needs, concerned for our pain and our sorrow. He is as near as our very breath, within us, around us. Christmas is a journey of the heart.