Dec. 24, 2020 - Christmas Eve
A Christmas Like No Other
By Fr. Hao Dinh
We are spoiled by temperate weather in the Bay Area: summers are mostly mild and winter months are generally cold but not frigid.
Sometimes you may feel connected to God as you contemplate the beauty of nature, but you wouldn’t pray outdoors on a cold Christmas. Yet, that’s what we are doing now: celebrating the Eucharist on Christmas Eve in the open air! It’s colder than last week, but not too much. If you celebrate Christmas outdoors in Australia, it’s a different story. It’s mid-summer down under, so they go camping these holidays, they enjoy Christmas time at the beach or with barbie (that’s how they call barbeque)!
Today, you may have in mind your typical experience of the Christmas liturgy: the cozy and beautiful environment, the comfort and joy from traditional carols, the warmth and peace in the assembly around the table of the Lord, etc. Yet, here we are, celebrating Christmas outdoors, in the same way that we have been doing for months during this pandemic.
I am sure you will never forget this unique Christmas, this challenging year, and all that we have gone through. You will remember as long as you are alive this outdoor Mass on Christmas Eve at 2 o’clock in the afternoon! This year I hope nobody will ask, “What time is your midnight Mass?”
But on this day we are much closer to the First Noël, First Christmas, 20 centuries ago, when Mary and Joseph of Nazareth lived with a lot of uncertainty, searching desperately for a place to stay in Bethlehem, to welcome the Holy Child into this world on a dark night.
Mary and Joseph knew they were not alone in their journey. They worried about the logistics and preparations for the birth of the Holy Infant in the midst of the crowds descending upon Bethlehem for a census, but were confident in the God who was with them. They remembered what the angel said to both of them in their own annunciation experience: “Do not be afraid!”
They were not afraid, for God was at the center of their lives and they trusted in him. Before saying yes to God and conceiving Jesus, the Word made flesh, Mary’s heart was already wide open to the Word of God. Joseph, being a righteous man, was ready to do what God wanted even when he did not understand it.
Then to Mary and Joseph, the Son of God was born, when humanity did not expect it. Even Mary and Joseph must have been shocked despite the advance annunciation they had received. God kept his promises and remained faithful in all circumstances.
The experience of this Christmas reminds me of another Christmas decades ago when I was a teenager in my homeland. It was when my family had to move to a new settlement, leaving behind city life. Catholics and some non-Catholics in that rural area gathered for the Christmas Vigil Mass in an unforgettable setting. We sit on the dirt floor in a structure with only a roof above our heads. There was no electricity and no festive environment.
Yet the Lord was truly the Emmanuel (God with us) to the assembly. As I sit on the floor, I saw the Holy Child being on the same floor, at the same level with me. He’s one of us, as a human person, sharing our suffering and anxieties. He was the light shining in the darkness we experienced. We were not alone.
Jesus was born not in the comfort of a room, and was subject to the elements. But he himself was the new, living temple where people encountered God. It was no accident that his first visitors were the shepherds in the fields, who were among the poor and lowly. “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20).
Jesus was born when the world was not aware, and he was counted during a census when “the whole world should be enrolled” (Lk 2:1). He was just a number in the database of the Roman Empire, but his birth altered the course of human history, inaugurating a kingdom of grace and love, justice and peace.
Today the Emmanuel continues to walk with us. Like Mary and Joseph, who “walked by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), we learn to do the same. God is not only walking with us. He is closer to us than we can imagine. We are now outside a church building, but God has made us his temples in baptism. God is within us.