Look at the word JOY. You see that it is made up of three letters: first J, then O, and lastly Y. J stands for Jesus, O for Others, and Y for You. Joy therefore is: Jesus, Others, before You. To know joy in our lives we need to place Jesus first in everything. Secondly, we need to try to please others before trying to please yourself. That is the recipe for joy. That is how we can convert the Christmas "joy to the world" into a personal "joy in my life" now and always.
As we listen to the Christmas story tonight, at midnight and tomorrow morning, we would do well to pay attention to the various people and groups of people that are mentioned and see whether they try to please Jesus and others before themselves, or whether they seek their own interests first. You will discover that those who practice J-O-Y are the ones who enjoy peace and joy, and that those who practice "self first" are always the unhappy and miserable ones. Here are a few examples.
On the negative side we have the innkeeper who turned Joseph and Mary out in the cold night while he enjoyed the warmth of the inn. There's also Herod who wanted above all his job security as king to the point that he was prepared to kill Jesus and others. These people never get to experience the joy of the good news. On the positive side, consider the shepherds who leave everything they own, their flock, in the bush and go to adore Jesus first. Or the magi, the wise men from the East who leave the security of their homeland and make a long and dangerous journey to Bethlehem just to worship the new-born Jesus and give him gifts. These are the one's who receive God's favor, the ones who experience in their hearts the true peace and joy of Christmas. Let us today resolve to follow their good example by always placing Jesus and others before self and then the joy of Christmas will always be ours.
But on this evening we are going to talk about Christmas gifts. By now, we’ve each carefully chosen and wrapped the gifts we are giving to those we love. We understand the joy of giving. We can’t wait for our gift to be opened. Even a small child is filled with joy at being able to give something – maybe a handmade card or ornament carefully prepared and waiting there under the tree. So imagine the joy of our Lord this Christmas! The joy He has in giving, once again, the great gift He wants to give us on Christmas morning.
The readings we are given for this Vigil Mass are meant to help us to see the immensity of the gift we have received in the Incarnation – the coming of our Lord. In the first reading we hear the Prophet say, “For Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch.” Isaiah has been our teacher during the Advent season, and today he helps us to appreciate the greatness of the gift we receive in Jesus.
Sometimes the simplest gift we receive is the most beautiful – the handmade gift of the child, for example. God’s gift is like this. And so the first thing we need to ask the Lord today is to help us see clearly, so that the presents we find under the tree don’t blind us to the Gift that is above all gifts. The gift that should burn most brightly for us is the gift of our salvation. It is a gift we have each received, and there can be no excuse for keeping it hidden – for dampening the flame. And yet, as Christians, there should always be a bit of Advent in our attitude. Because we are still working out our salvation, as St Paul says. Christmas doesn’t happen in our lives just because the calendar says so. Our true Christmas happens when this great gift of our salvation is accepted and burns brightly in our hearts.
Christmas is the perfect time to ask ourselves this question: Does Jesus burn brightly in my heart? Does His salvation shine in my family? The burning torch that Isaiah spoke of is real. Has it entered my life, as it did in the lives of the great saints like Francis Xavier, Ignatius, Teresa of Avila or Teresa of Calcutta? The coming of Jesus on Christmas morning doesn’t reach its fulfillment until we have welcomed Him into our hearts. Christmas doesn’t become real for us until our hearts are burning with love and gratitude – because Jesus comes to be our salvation. He comes to save us from our sin and from the emptiness of a life lived without God.
And with this gift comes a beautiful promise from God. The Prophet Isaiah tells us that “nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory.” It’s not a promise for our life in the world, but for our life in the spirit. It’s more likely that one who puts his trust in God alone will be rejected and abandoned by the world. The name he is given by a world without God is “Forsaken” and “Desolate.” But the promise of Christmas – the promise of Christ with us – is that we will receive a new name. When we accept the great gift that God wants to give us at Christmas, and when we persevere in working out our salvation, we will be called by God “My Delight”, and our land “Espoused”. Our God delights in us. He loves us with the love of a spouse.
Today, let’s ask God for the faith to believe this with all our heart. Because Christmas isn’t just about the Gift we receive, but about the gift we become for others. We are each called to become gift – to share in the salvific mission of Christ – as crazy as that sounds! We are each called to cooperate with Christ, even today, in the great gift of salvation that He gives to the world. We live Christmas more and more perfectly as our lives become this gift. Isn’t this what Mary teaches us? From the moment she held the newborn baby Jesus in her arms, she shared in His mission – she became a gift. Even before that. Didn’t she say at the Annunciation, “I am the handmaid of the Lord” – I am gift?
Brothers and sisters of St Mark’s, can you imagine what a beautiful place our parish would be if we each understood this mission? Can you imagine the power of this gift that our Lord wants to give? A power that starts in that manger in Bethlehem and radiates out through the lives of men and women accepting and living the gift in their own lives, throughout the centuries… Can you imagine how the world would be changed if we each allowed ourselves to become a gift – to become part of this gift of salvation?
So maybe now we can begin to see the immensity of this simple gift that we receive, and that we can give through our lives. It is waiting for us on Christmas morning. Lord, help me to believe, and increase my trust in this gift - the promise of salvation. Help me to see this promise as a Gift above all other gifts. Make my heart burn with this gift, and change in me all that dampens the flame. Lord, if I truly understood the immensity of the gift it would change the entire course of my life. It would make the fire of your love burn brightly in my life, in my family and in my parish. I want to be this gift to others. I offer myself this Christmas and I ask you to perfect your gift in me. Amen.