Friday, December 24, 2004

Vigil Mass -- The Nativity of the Lord
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
Matthew 1:1-25

This Gospel is about a failure.

I can't let my nice, clean Nativity set fool me. Joseph and Mary were nobodies, lost in a backwater town that the one had left as a child and the other had never seen. The animals in the stable stunk like farm animals do today, if not worse. The shepherds were filthy after wandering with their flocks for weeks. The Magi were out of the picture: still sitting comfortably at home in Persia, just beginning to see that new star. The scene at Bethlehem resembled a group of refugees far more than it did a Christmas special.

The first two readings speak of light, freedom, glory, and joy. But the most striking thing about the Gospel is colossal, embarrassing failure. This is about a failure, one like the failures in my own life.

This is failure. This is my great plan that never actually happened. This is the test I honestly studied for, and still screwed up completely. This is the football that slipped through my hands with everyone watching. This is the prayer that was never answered. This is the argument I won, only to lose a friend. This is the rejection letter from the school of my dreams. This is the birthday when nobody came to my party. This is the breakup of the relationship I poured my heart into. This is the fear I feel when someone brings up religion, the fear that someone will mock me for taking God seriously. This is the advice I gave my best friend, only to watch them ignore me and see them get hurt. This is the idea I had but could never explain to anyone else without confusing them. This is watching the person who has everything, and seeing them get still more than me. This is the day I let down someone I care for, as much as I tried to deserve their trust. This is the laughter around me when I've just made a mistake. This is the realization that I probably won't ever be as successful as I've always dreamed. This is my attempt to be a better person, when I end up acting stupid and selfish again- just the way I always do.

This is Joseph, who finds out he's too poor and too late to stay at the inn, so he has to lead the woman he loves to a disgusting stable. She's giving birth and Joseph can't afford a midwife, can't wrap the newborn child in a proper robe. Joseph wanted all the best things for this baby, the child whom an angel told him to protect; but he has nothing to offer for the Son of God at His most vulnerable moment. Joseph is ashamed.

This is Mary, who heard the gossip for nine months: that she was crazy, or a liar, or worse. Mary knows that it is the Messiah who has to lie in this feeding trough. She has prayed to be ready for this day, and yet her hour comes at the worst time- far from home, with only Joseph to be near her, in this putrid stable. God seems to be mocking her.

This is the one whom Isaiah calls "Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace," born into humiliating poverty. This is the man whom, in today's Psalm, all nations and all creation shall one day praise, now seen only by a few unwashed and bewildered shepherds. This is "our great God and savior Jesus Christ" as described by Paul, unnoticed in a dirty shed in a small town in a conquered nation of no account. And this is how Christ Himself chose to enter our world- through failure.

God freely revealed himself in the ultimate failure, and it is because of this that He is with me in my failures. If I only ask Him, He takes me beyond my fears. When I stop asking Him that I not fail, and start asking what He wants of me- failures or not- then He can do miracles in my life. I don't have the strength to try when I think it's futile, but He does. He moves me to apologize to my dad when I don't think it will do any good. He moves me to write that next paper, when I did so badly on the last one. He moves me to talk to someone new, when I'm sure they all think I'm a loser. He moves me to go to Confession, when I'm embarrassed I have all the same sins I confessed the last time. He moves me to do what is right, when I don't want to do it any more. And with Him, suddenly my failures are not the end- they are not as terrible as they seemed in my mind. My nearness to Him is stronger than my fear, and I am free of the power of failure.

And this is the great mystery of Christmas- that there is joy in that failure 2000 years ago, and that there is even joy in our failures. For in our failures we can most discern that God is near to us in our suffering. And the only failure more colossal than the squalid and unheralded birth of Christ was the monstrous folly that was to happen, thirty years later, on Calvary.

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