26 Dec 2015

Homily for Christmas Eve - Abbot Patrick Hederman, Glenstal Abbey

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass
Dom Mark Patrick Hederman
Abbot - Glenstal Abbey

Before we talk about God and incarnation, let’s talk about us. Here am I standing in front of you this evening, a body with a mouth. Without these two you can’t find out what’s inside me. My inner life is completely cut off. I can speak, and the words I say give you some idea of what is inside. My flesh becomes word and you can get the message. But the body also is sending out signals, a hidden commentary on what I say: the tone, the facial expression, the delivery. ‘There you are,’ you can say, ‘you think you’re great standing up there behind that microphone. You’re looking down your nose. Your posh accent, your massive chin are portraits of an abbot as a spiritual snob!’

And that’s the problem of incarnation: we all arrive in a moving container of  flesh, a wheely-bin, which can be attractive or off-putting, depending on the package deal you got. ‘I’m sorry if you don’t like my face, Bob Hope used to say, – it came with the body, you see they went as a set.’ This bodily person is our interpreter; through it, with it, in it, we learn everything we are ever going to know about each other: carnal knowledge in every sense of the word. And the mystery is that inside every refuse sack there’s a diamond trying to get out.

What we celebrate this holy night is the fact that the eternal, the almighty, the infinite God was squeezed through this same mysterious filter. God too became a body walking around Palestine. ‘The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.’ ‘Blessed is He who has made our body a tabernacle for His hidden Nature.’ So sang St Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian poet. The mystery of the inner life of the Trinity has been filtered through the three-year span of the public life of one person, who was God here on earth.

The people around Jesus who were with him in the flesh, were captivated by what they saw, what they heard, what they touched. St John, particularly, never stops telling us how some kind of lightning flashed through the frame of this person which compelled worship and discipleship. We, who come two thousand years later, are left with the pieces of the jigsaw, of one thousand days of his living and breathing. We have the whispers, the traces, the fragments left over, which others have collected.

We know relatively nothing about Jesus until he burst on to the public stage at the age of thirty. The angels, the manger, the straw, the magi, the star, the shepherds, the ox and the ass, these are all images which later generations plastered onto the bare walls of the untrammelled fact: Jesus Christ was born. It is the fact of his birth and not the circumstances that matters. Almighty God became a child; and from that moment human nature, mine and yours, in whatever shape or size, qualified for eternal life, became capable of divinity, became heaven-worthy. This is our great celebration.

And we celebrate these mysteries of God’s life on earth in a very specific and particular way which we call liturgy. We ponder in our hearts every second of this life, which describes the most perfect attitude possible to every human situation. The Liturgy takes all the information about this life, and using every manner of expression available to us as human beings, shakes them up and pours them out like ‘filings which gather to form a figure in a magnetic field.’ That’s why we have a crib, an Advent wreath, a Midnight Mass, that’s why we give presents to each other, that’s why we have a Christmas tree. We use every custom, every privilege, every means at our disposal to gather round God and say: good on you, welcome aboard for Christmas 2015. We’re together in the business of making 2016 the best year yet. We’re not just relying on Enda, or Micheál, Lucinda, Gerry or Joan, we’re relying on God. By taking His body and blood into our body and blood in the Eucharist this holy night, we too become overshadowed by His Holy Spirit; we too give birth to Jesus Christ; we too become incarnations of Divine life; and we walk out of this church as little Christmases spreading the energy of His life and His love throughout our world.

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