Two Christmas Homilies from Archbishop DiNoia
December 31, 2015
The following homilies were given by Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., during his 2015 Christmas visit to the friars throughout Washington, D.C.
Dominican House of Studies
Isaiah 52:7-10 / Hebrews 1:1-6 / John 1:1-18
Dear friends in Christ, a warm welcome to all who join the Dominican friars on this Christmas morning to rejoice in the “marvelous exchange—O admirabile commercium—[by which] man’s Creator has become man, born of a virgin, [and] we have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity” (Magnificat antiphon, I Vespers, feast of the Mother of God). The mystery of the Incarnation, borne to us in the sights and sounds of the Christmas liturgy, fills our hearts with joy. For us and for our salvation, God, who is infinite and omnipresent, creator of the universe, transcending and yet present in every part of it, nonetheless squeezes himself, as it were, into a tiny babe—“God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy” (G. M. Hopkins, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” lines 18-19). And not only that. As the opening of the Letter to the Hebrews affirms, God does this in a way that unsurpassably locates and identifies him with this child, and uniquely so with respect to all other conceivable manifestations or divine appearances before or afterwards. The ineffaceable particularity of the Incarnation has seemed a quaint belief to some, a preposterous one to others, and, to the more polite and theologically up-to-date, nothing but a comforting myth. We don’t make it easy for them, do we? We confess not merely that God is present in this child (God who is after all present everywhere), but more robustly that God the Son of God personally assumed the human nature of, and is thus uniquely—hypostatically, the tradition affirms—joined to this child. For some, this is hard to swallow: how can the unbounded be contained or the infinite be made particular? We can confront the incredulity of unbelief only with faith seeking the inexaustible intelligibility of divine wisdom. Given what God has revealed to us about his purposes, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis, the mystery of the Incarnation makes—dare we say it?—perfectly good divine sense, and perfectly good human sense too. And for two reasons. In the first place, by faith we know that God wants to share the communion of his trinitarian life with us. In other words, he wants to make us his sons and daughters—in short, as the Christian tradition has not hesitated to say, his intimate friends. How better to accomplish this than by becoming one of us. While a shared human nature is fundamental to our relationships with others, it is only with particular human beings that we can have such relationships. Even a generous love for mankind as a whole is no substitute for knowing and loving particular people whom we can see, hear, address, touch, hold, and kiss. These people have names, they live somewhere, they have ethnic and social backgrounds, and so on. To bring us into the communion of trinitarian life, God first enters into the round of human existence and thus, as Aquinas loved to say, he adapts his action to our nature. He even has a mother whose “hand leaves his light / Sifted to suit our sight” (G. M. Hopkins, ibid., lines 112-113). At the same time, God adapts our nature to his. “A Boy is born in Bethlehem,” we sing, “Wherefore rejoice Jerusalem / The Father’s Word on high doth take / A mortal form for mortals’ sake / … He took our flesh, to man akin / In all things like us, save in sin / That he might make our mortal race, Alleluia / Like God and like himself by grace, Alleluia, alleluia” (“Puer Natus Est in Bethlehem”). How could we share in the communion of trinitarian life if we were not made sharers—“partakers”—of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)? Listen to St. Athanasius: “the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (On the Incarnation, 54, 3). From the divine point of view, then, the Incarnation makes perfectly good sense for this reason: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of his boundless love became what we are the he might make us what he himself is” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, preface). But there is a second reason. Not only must our human nature be elevated, but the sin and death that oppress us must be overcome. To be at home in the communion of the Blessed Trinity we need to be redeemed as well as divinized. What the Son is by nature we become by the twofold grace of adoption, that fills us with joy, and redemption, that dispels our sadness. “There cannot rightly be any room for sorrow,” insists St. Leo the Great in the first Christmas sermon of his pontificate, “in a place where life has been born. By dispelling fear of death, life fills us with joy about the promised eternity….[T]he Word of God, God the Son of God, who ‘in the beginning was with God, through whom all things were made and without whom was made nothing,’ to free human beings from eternal death was himself made human” (Sermon 21, 1&2). Viewed with the eyes of faith, the mystery of the Incarnation again displays how exquisitely tailored to the human condition are the divine provisions for our redemption. “In the conflict undertaken on our behalf,” declares St. Leo, “battle was joined on the most remarkably fair terms. Omnipotent Lord engages…[the devil], not in his own majesty but in our lowliness, bringing against him the very same form and the very same nature [that had been overcome], partaker indeed in our mortality but wholly without sin” (Sermon 21, 2). The work of redemption engages the fullness of divine power, without which it would be futile, exercised at the same time, and indeed fittingly, from within the very zone in need of remedy. Our champion in the struggle against sin is one like us in all things but sin—and one who, though succumbing to death for a time, conquered it by his resurrection and thereby won for us eternal life. “He took our flesh, to man akin / In all things like us, save in sin / That he might make our mortal race / Like God and like himself by grace / Now lies he in a manger poor / Whose kingdom shall for aye endure / This day let joyful praises flow, Alleluia / Benedicamus Domino, Alleluia, alleluia” (“Puer Natus Est in Bethlehem”).
Feast of the Holy Family
St. Dominic Church
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 / 1 Jn 3:1-2, 21-24 / Luke 2:41-52
Brothers and sisters in Christ. “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God…We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:1-2). Here St. John is speaking of the divine desire that is at the heart of all the Christmas celebrations, including today’s feast of the Holy Family: nothing less than God’s desire to share the communion of Trinitarian life with us. In the Incarnation Christ becomes one of us so that he can make us like himself, adopting us in the Holy Spirit as children—sons and daughters—of the Father. Thus we sing at Christmas: “The Father’s Word on high doth take / A mortal form for mortals’ sake / … He took our flesh, to man akin / In all things like us, save in sin / That he might make our mortal race / Like God and like himself by grace” (“Puer Natus Est in Bethlehem”). St. Athanasius puts it with characteristic directness: “the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (On the Incarnation, 54, 3)—always with the objective of making us sharers in the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what Christmas is all about. How can we understand it? Well, we know that a shared human nature is basic to all our relationships with other people. We can’t have a relationship with human nature in the abstract, can we? It is only with particular human beings that we can have such relationships. There is no substitute for knowing and loving particular people whom we can see, hear, address, touch, hold, and kiss. These people have names, they have families, they live somewhere, they have ethnic and social backgrounds, and so on. Something like this is also true of our relationship with the Triune God. To bring us into the communion of Trinitarian life, God the Son of God first enters into the round of human existence and thus begins to adapt his saving action to our nature. We come to know Christ as a fellow human, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, like us in all things but sin. We can hear him and see him—or at least imagine what he might look like. He has a voice that we can listen to, and he has arms that can embrace us. The Gospel genealogy lays out his ancestry for us. We know that his grandparents were called Joachim and Ann, and that Mary and Joseph are his virgin mother and his foster father. We know that he was born in Bethlehem and lived in Palestine under Roman rule. We know that he was Jewish and spoke Aramaic. There can be no doubt that Jesus is a fellow human being, and yet very God. In order to draw us into his own divine life, Christ is among us as really and truly one of us. To be sure, we can’t deny that God could have accomplished our salvation in other ways, but given our human nature and given his purposes known to us only by faith, to make it possible for us to meet him and know him personally makes a lot of sense. God adapts himself to us, always with the objective of making us his children and thus adapting our nature to his. For how could we share in the communion of Trinitarian life if we were not made sharers—“partakers”—of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)? What the Son of God is by nature, we become by the grace of adoption. We can see that Jesus’s social and family ties are among the circumstances of his life that significantly establish his humanity for us. He has a family just as we do. During these Christmas days, we have been spiritually and liturgically present with the Holy Family at his birth, gazing with love at the infant Jesus asleep in the hay, with Mary and Joseph at his side, with the ox and ass, with the shepherds below and the angels above. Today the scene shifts. It’s twelve years on. Jesus has traveled with Mary and Joseph to the temple in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover—a momentous pilgrimage for him this year because the coming of adolescence initiates a period of more intense formation in the Jewish faith. It is on the return journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth that a very serious family crisis develops when Jesus appears to be lost: “The boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.” We can imagine their dismay. “Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking him questions, and all who heard him were astounded as his understanding and his answers.” After three days, during Passover, with the paschal mystery thus already on the horizon, Christ’s first words recorded in the Gospel express his divine sonship and his dedication to his Father’s will. We are deeply struck by what he has to say when for the first time we hear him speak. The dramatic circumstances of his parents’ anguished search for him accentuate the absolute determination with which the twelve-year old Jesus embraces the divine plan for our salvation. Jesus replies to Mary and Joseph: “Why were you looking for me? Did you know not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Notwithstanding the seemingly sharp tone of this reply, Venerable Bede is on the mark when he writes that Christ “does not upbraid them…for searching for their son, but he raises the eyes of their souls to appreciate what he owes him whose Eternal Father he is” (In Lucae Evangelium expositio, in loc.). When for the first time we hear God the Son of God speak, we understand that he is clearly thinking of his Father and clearly thinking of us. What is it that he owes to his eternal Father other than to fulfill the work of our salvation by which we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity? And, my dear friends in Christ, he did indeed humble himself. “He went down with [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” For our sake, the Lord of the universe, just like an ordinary human child, was subject to his earthly parents, and thereby acknowledged their authority as sharing in the authority of his Father. “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” During these years of his so-called hidden life before the start of his public ministry, Jesus worked with St. Joseph as a carpenter in Nazareth, living an ordinary life as a devoted son and, moreover, consecrating family life as a sign of the communion of Trinitarian love.
Christ’s human family is made holy by his presence in its midst. The primary lesson of the feast of the Holy Family, as celebrated within Christmastide, lies here. Just as the incarnate only begotten Son of God makes his family holy, so he wants to make our families holy as well. This purpose fits with the whole economy of salvation by which he comes to share our humanity in order to accomplish something that is completely beyond our capacities, namely, that, sharing in his divinty, we become children of the Father. The feast of the Holy Family is not simply intended to present an example to be imitated or a model to be reproduced, but the possibility of Christ’s transforming grace made actual in our own families. When approving the feast of the Holy Family, Pope Leo XIII wrote: “When a merciful God determined to complete the work of human reparation which the world had awaited throughout long ages, He so established and designed the whole, that from its very inception, it would show to the world the sublime pattern of a divinely constituted family. In this [Holy Family] all men should see the perfect example of domestic unity, and of all virtues and holiness” (Neminem Fugit, 14 June 1892, §1). May our families be made holy by the eternal source of all created communion, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit dwelling with us. Amen.
Image: Solemn Second Vespers of Christmas, Dominican House of Studies.