Solemn Chapter for Christmas
This morning we had our customary Solemn Chapter for Christmas in which one of the Sisters gives a sermon on Christmas and the Incarnation.
This year our preacher was Sister Mary Rose, our Novice Directress. Her beautiful and profound sermon is below:
“And Made his Dwelling among Us”
“Home” is a word closely associated with Christmas. Even in secular celebrations of Christmas, Bing Crosby croons, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and the fabled Santa Claus makes his nocturnal visits to the homes of good little boys and girls. In English, the word “home” connotes more than its synonyms: “house”, “dwelling”, “domicile”. “Home” implies a place of security, an intimate space generally reserved to family and close friends. “Home is where the heart is,” goes the adage. “Home” implies a whole web of relationships. When we speak of someone being “homeless”, the use of this word is much more powerful in describing the reality than if we were to say “houseless”. For the homeless are usually suffering from some sort of rupture in human relationships be that through mental illness, addiction, or social injustice. The association of “home” with Christmas picks up a fundamental truth of the Incarnation. By becoming flesh and making his dwelling among us, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made his home with us. He entered into the web of human relationships coming from a particular tribe and a particular people, born into a particular family, as the genealogies point out.
Traditionally, the Season of Advent celebrates three comings of Our Lord: his coming in the flesh at the Incarnation, his coming at the end of time, and his coming today into our hearts. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live…The heart is the place of decision…It is the place of truth…It is the place of encounter” (CCC 2563). “Home is where the heart is.” We could also say, “Our hearts are our homes.” In so many of the hymns, antiphons and prayers of Advent we are urged to prepare a home for Christ in our hearts.
Then cleansed be ev’ry heart from sin,
Make straight the way of God within;
O let us all our hearts prepare
For Christ to come and enter there.
-On Jordan’s bank, verse 2
By thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne.
-Come, thou long Expected Jesus, verse 4
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look East, and sing today:
Love the Guest is on the way.
-People, Look East, verse 1
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, come and live in our midst;
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, come, make your home in our hearts!
Let us cleanse our hearts for the coming of our great King, that we may be ready to welcome him; he is coming and will not delay.
-Ant. 3, Office of Readings, First Sunday of Advent
“She is the virgin who prepared a joyful home for God in her heart.”
-Responsory to the Second Reading at Office of Readings,
December 13, Memorial of St. Lucy
May the Lord make you overflow with love for one another and for all, even as our love does for you. May he strengthen your hearts, making them blameless and holy before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones (1 Thes 3:12-13).
Come and stay with us, Lord.
-Response to the Intercessions, Evening Prayer II, First Sunday of Advent
A prime example of someone who prepared for the coming of the Messiah in his heart is St. Joseph. The Scriptures describe him as a righteous man. Retreating into his heart to deliberate on what to do when Mary is found to be with child he decides on a compassionate response. A man at home with himself, he is able to act rather than react out of passionate anger or an indignant insisting on his rights. This of course does not diminish the agony of St. Joseph, his perplexity and bewilderment. However, he refrains from lashing out in his hurt and causing more injury. How different his behavior is from the villain in St. Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, King Herod the Great. We know from contemporary historians that this usurping Idumean propped up by the Roman Senate, neither at home in Judea nor with himself, sought to bolster his claims to kingship by marrying the beautiful and popular Hasmonean princess, Mariamne, after dismissing his own wife and son for the sake of political expediency. (The Hasmoneans were the descendants of the Maccabees.) Herod passionately loved Mariamne. However, in the jealousy so often born of insecurity he could not stand to think of another man marrying her in the event that he should be killed and repeatedly gave orders that she should be executed if he died. This cooled the feelings of Mariamne towards him as she understandably concluded that he did not really love her. Herod had her executed and later the two sons she had borne him thus eliminating the Hasmonean Dynasty. In Joseph’s troubled sleep, the angel of the Lord tells him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home” (Mt. 1:20). Joseph knows who he is. He knows he is of the line of David. (Historians say there is indication that the house of David moved north into Galilee as the Hasmonean Dynasty rose in power.) The angel addresses Joseph as a prince, but whereas the pretender to the throne dismisses his own wife and son and then executes his second wife and two of his own sons, this Son of David is asked to take into his home his own wife who is bearing a child he knows he did not beget. His ancestor David stole another man’s wife and fathered a child with her. The wife of another man attempted to seduce his Old Testament namesake, but nowhere in Scripture is another man asked to do what God requests of St. Joseph. Even in the rocky marriage of Gomer and Hosea, the children born of her were Hosea’s. And Joseph accepts. Unlike the Joseph of old, he knows how to keep silence even when this will mean looking like a fool as other people jump to their own conclusions. Joseph’s security does not come simply from having a rightful claim to the kingship. It comes from the right order in his relationships with self, God and others. Having deliberated in his conscience on the right course of action and receiving enlightenment from God, he acts. So Joseph does welcome Mary into his home and in welcoming her into his home he welcomes her into his heart and with Mary comes Jesus.
Here then is the irony. After being told to take Mary into his home, Joseph and Mary have to leave home for Bethlehem to register in the census. Thus came about Christ’s birth in a stable. Interestingly, St. Matthew’s narrative, which is told from St. Joseph’s perspective, makes no mention of the original house in Nazareth, the trip to Bethlehem, the full inn or the birth in the stable. Was it just too difficult for Joseph to talk about leaving the home he had so lovingly prepared for Mary and the frantic search to find some sort of shelter on that first Christmas night? Or did subsequent events overshadow these details? Again, it is interesting to note that Joseph’s narrative does not mention the shepherds, only the Magi and the subsequent murder of the Holy Innocents. (Mary, on the other hand, seems to be so deeply grateful to these first men who came to see her baby that she has been appearing to shepherds ever since.) It seems Joseph is thinking about another house, not the house in Nazareth but the House of David. The homage of the Magi and fury of Herod indicate that this child is indeed the Son of David, who is to come. (As an aside, although, the massacre of the Holy Innocents is not mentioned by non-biblical historians, it seems perfectly in keeping with Herod’s character, which had not spared his own wife and sons, to have seized the opportunity of the Roman census to try to destroy the remaining dynasty with claims to Jewish kingship. Infanticide was not considered a crime in Rome so it is not surprising that Roman historians do not mention it.)
But what would have happened if Mary and Joseph had remained in Nazareth or if there had been room for them in the inn? By leaving their own home, the Holy Family became more accessible to all classes of people. Joseph and Mary were not wealthy. However, they came from good families. Even though they were both presumably descendents of the Shepherd King, shepherds in their day were of the lowest class of people with whom they probably would not have socialized. The stable was a semi-public place. To go to someone’s house in the middle of the night would have been much more intimidating for the shepherds. They would have felt more at home and less awkward in a stable. Here we see a characteristic of God: He meets us where we are. Then, too, the Magi would never have found the newborn King in Nazareth. The Jewish wise men would not have directed them there.
However, even though Mary and Joseph had to leave their home in Nazareth and the first Christmas was not at home, Jesus did find a home that first Christmas night in the hearts of Mary and Joseph and then in the shepherds. Jesus’ divine origin was from the Father’s heart as the Intercessions say for Sunday I of the Fourth Week of Advent, “Born in your Father’s heart, you became man in the womb of the Virgin Mary.” In the home of his parents’ hearts Jesus traveled to Egypt and then to Nazareth. In the House of David, the home of Joseph, he learned in his humanity of the Father’s love and our ultimate destiny: to go home to the Father’s heart.
So this Christmas, may Christ find a home in our hearts. May we remember that the Father’s will is being worked out even when things do not go as planned or we are asked to leave the familiar for, ultimately, it is God who knows how to prepare a home for himself and how to lead us home.
O come, thou key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home,
Make safe the way that leads on high,
That we no more have cause to sigh.
-O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, verse 5