“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”
How many stories do we know that begin like that? “Once, upon a time …” “In days of old …” How many of our great tales have a beginning that places the events so far away from us? And yet, these tales have a lasting – even life-changing – effect on us. That’s the power of a great story.
Tonight (today), we hear another of these stories. It begins, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus….” The familiar story of the birth of Christ – a story that has certainly had an effect in our lives here today – begins with events that took place 2,016 years ago, 5,860 miles away from here (yes, I Googled it!). Whoever was here “in those days” certainly would have no idea that these events were taking place – in fact, even in the area, very few took notice. All we hear of are some shepherds, trying to stay awake in the middle of the night. Hardly the makings of a great story, it would seem.
However, we know what happened: how the shepherds came and saw the Baby and His mother and father; how He was lying in a food trough among livestock; how these travellers were excluded from the inn because there just wasn’t enough room for them. And there were angels singing God’s praises; and a star led wise men from afar to this tiny place; and God had visited His people in a real, breathing, crying way.
A miracle. A miracle that few witnessed. A miracle that remains meaningful for us today.
Christmas is about God breaking into our history in a final and complete way – how He chose to enter the human story as one of us – as “God-with-us,” the “Wonder-Counselor,” the “Prince of Peace,” our “God-Hero.” It is not only about events that took place long ago and far, far away. Christmas is totally about how near God is to us – how He shares our story.
Each year, we gather and remember: we hear the familiar story that the Gospel relates; we fondly recall those “happy golden days of yore”; we are nostalgic for the past. It is good to remember this way; after all, this memory is part of who we are. However, precisely because it is part of who we are, we cannot allow this story to remain stored on a shelf until this time next year. We must stay near to God as He draws near to us – “O come, all ye faithful!”
This is why the Church exists. Jesus knows that we need to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell to remain engaged with and near to Him. He gave us the Sacraments to help us experience His loving presence for all ages. In a special and real way, we encounter Him at every Mass, as He gives us His very Self in the Eucharist to nourish and sustain us. Here, we enter into that same story that He entered into “in those days,” long ago in Bethlehem. Each week, whether we are here or not, whether we are aware of it or not, this same story is played out again as Christ’s saving sacrifice is repeated at the Altar and we are made sharers in His Communion – just like tonight/day.
It is easy to fall back into a “movie” mentality: these things happened; we can watch them each Christmas; and we can continue with all the other stories we have to hear. However, if we really believe that Jesus is who He says He is – who we say He is – then this is not just one story among others. It is the Story – and it is our Story.
The miracle of Christmas is often elusive, since it doesn’t present itself in our face like a blockbuster. Christmas – real Christmas – is quiet, arriving on a silent and holy night, away in a manger, in the little town of Bethlehem. None of this draws our attention – unless we are anticipating it. The Christian life of discipleship is one that expects to encounter Christ – not accidentally, but intentionally. We must open our eyes and our hearts to see that encounter taking place. Christ comes to us all – in the small, ordinary moments of our lives, and in the bigger, more significant ones. He does this because it is God’s will to be with us.
God is not “long ago and far away.” God is here, now. Jesus encounters us every time we share this Holy Eucharist, and He gives us Communion, which we are called to go and share with others. The history of this Story of God-with-us is a history of going out and proclaiming, just like the angels, just like the shepherds, just like the first disciples. We are the Church, filled with Christ’s presence, and charged with sharing that Good News with the waiting world.