This homily was delivered on the 24th of December 2012 at the Midnight Mass in the Grade School Quadrangle in Xavier School.
I suspect we all harbor some secret questions about Christmas–questions we’ve always wanted to ask about this special season, but for some reason, never got around to asking anyone. When you think about it, there are, after all, some unsolved mysteries and unanswered questions about Christmas–mysteries and questions that only the grimmest Grinch and the most persistent party-pooper among us dare to ask .
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But who’s afraid of the Grinch, right? And so, tonight, Christmas eve, let’s tackle the top three questions from Christmas haters and meet those questions head-on and try to answer them without fear or apology.
Question #1: When exactly is Christmas Day anyway? Was Jesus really born on December 25th?
We’re actually not sure which exact day Jesus was born. No one really bothered to record it. According to Jewish tradition, Jesus was born at the beginning of Hanukkah, an 8-day Jewish holiday. That would make it exactly a month earlier: November 25th. Most Eastern Orthodox churches, on the other hand, celebrate Christmas on January 7th. So you see, there’s really no consensus about the historical date of Christmas.
Christmas was first celebrated on December 25th in the 5th century, probably because it was the winter solstice and the Romans used to party a lot that day to celebrate the passing of the shortest day of winter and the return of more sunshine. So by celebrating Christmas Day on the 25th of December, we are claiming that light that has returned to our world because the Son of God has become one of us.
Now, the Christmas haters among us can’t handle all these conflicting dates. For them, just because this mystery can’t be resolved once and for all, they deny that Christmas happened at all. But Christmas lovers on the other hand will say: “Who cares?” In celebrating Christmas, what really matters is not the actual moment of Christmas but the meaning of Christmas. The more important question is not “When are we celebrating Christmas?” but “What are we celebrating at Christmas?”
Question #2: Can Santa really deliver all those gifts to all the children in the world in a single night?
Since the 1850s, scientists have studied Santa’s job description and have tried to figure out what it would take to get the job done. Here are some things to consider: Today there are 2.1 billion children scattered all over the world, and all presents must be dispatched on Christmas eve the traditional way: signed by Santa, sealed in a stocking, and delivered down a chimney. After a bunch of investigation and calculations, scientists and mathematicians have come up with three non-negotiable job requirements:
First, Santa would require some kind of antenna that picks up electromagnetic signals from children’s brains to know exactly what presents they want. You see, not all children write to Santa. In fact, millions of children are out of school and can’t read or write.
Requirement no. 2: For the world’s 2.1 billion children, Santa’s sleigh will need to carry 400,000 tons of gifts. Now, the average reindeer is capable of pulling only 150kg, so Santa would need 360,000 reindeer to pull his sleigh. Can you imagine singing a Christmas carol that names all 360,000 reindeer? I have trouble enough remembering the 12.
Finally, if there are 2.1 billion children in the world, and if we assume an average of 2.5 children per house, Santa will need to make 842 million stops tonight to deliver all his orders. This means he will have to cover 218 million miles every thousandth of a second to squeeze down the chimney, fill up the stockings, and get his sleigh airborne again. That’s an average speed of 1,280 miles per second.
Now, any old Grinch would say that clearly, these three things are just impossible to have, and for this reason, the conclusion is clear: Santa won’t get the job done! As you can see, when Christmas haters can’t completely understand something, they just explain it away.
But Christmas lovers will say: Just because you can’t explain something doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Besides, as Christmas carols have been reminding us since September this year when they first started playing here in the Philippines, what matters at Christmas is not the receiving but the giving. That’s a tradition that God Himself started when on the very first birthday of His only Son, He gave us that most precious of gifts, our Lord Jesus. Christmas is a celebration of God’s generosity. And so, while we wait for Santa tonight , let the waiting summon the Santa in each one of us so that we may imitate God, Who is the very first Gift Giver.
Third and last Christmas-hater question: If God really wanted to become human to save us, why pick a time and place like Palestine in 4 BC? And while we’re at it, why choose Mary and Joseph–of all the possible people in the world–to be his human parents?
It’s a valid question. If the idea of the Incarnation is to reach as many people as possible, the globalized interconnected world of the 21st century makes a much more sensible choice, doesn’t it? As the character of Judas sings in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”–and this was back in the 70s before the proliferation of social media:
Why did you choose such a backward time
and such a strange land?
If you’d come today, you would have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC has no mass communication.
And what about his parents? A poor Jewish carpenter and his girlfriend, a pious little peasant girl probably no more than 14 years old? You’re kidding, right? Why not pick royalty like William and Kate? Or at the very least Hollywood royalties like Brad and Angelina, who anyway have already adopted a child from every possible race? God could easily have come up with His own Reality TV versions of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” if only to find the perfect couple and parents for His Only Son.
So Christmas haters would say, “The Christmas story is just implausible! That’s not how an all-powerful, all-wise God would have acted.”
But Christmas lovers–and God-lovers–know that the truth is, that’s exactly how God would have acted. Ours is a God Who has an entirely different set of criteria for the things He does. Turning yourself into a baby, in the first place, doesn’t sound like a promising start for a grand plan to save the world–not to mention the ending! The same goes for all His other logistical decisions, like time, place, and parents for His Son.
But if there’s one thing that Christmas teaches us about God, it’s that His ways are not our ways. God is Absolute Mystery, and if we know what’s good for us, the last thing we should do is to try to keep Him in some box wrapped up like some nice Christmas package.
The Christmas story gives us some clues on how God prefers to be treated. At the same time it tells us why out of the millions of possible candidates in the entire history of the human race, present company included, He picked Mary and Joseph to be the parents of Jesus.The Infancy Narratives portray Mary and Joseph in a most telling way, revealing to us the very qualities that I suspect made God fall in love with them. These qualities have to do with how they responded to unresolved mysteries and unanswered questions in their lives, the very thing that Christmas haters seem quite allergic to.
So how did they do it? Simply put: Joseph believed and Mary pondered.
It’s perfectly natural for Joseph to be upset when he found his girlfriend mysteriously pregnant. It’s perfectly understandable for him to divorce her, even if he decided to do this quietly to spare Mary from public scandal. But to believe some random angel from some strange dream, and to do exactly what the angel says–i.e., to take Mary as his wife, be a father to her child, and risk becoming the laughing stock of the village? That’s a totally different ballgame! But that’s exactly what Joseph did: Faced with mystery, something he could not understand or explain, Joseph decided to believe and follow his dreams, no matter how foolish they may have seemed.
And what about Mary? Whenever she found herself before a mystery, she did not run away from it or as we sometimes do, try to explain it away. She pondered these events: the visit of the shepherd, the gifts of the wise men, the words of the prophets… She kept all this and treasured them in her heart, with all their unanswered questions and unresolved mysteries. She made herself at home with the things that her head and heart could not fully grasp, embracing the mysteries and surrendering to them. And isn’t this what prayer is? To bring before God our often incomprehensible lives and equally incomprehensible selves, with all their uncertainty and questions, and to accept them despite all that we can’t understand and explain about them.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, as we celebrate Christmas tonight, surrounded by our families and friends, let’s remember one important truth: That contrary to the claims of Christmas haters, our world is not a world without mystery or question. Our world is profoundly embedded in mystery, full of things larger than ourselves and things far beyond our reach.
If this Christmas, we find ourselves face to face with unanswered questions and unresolved mysteries, resist the temptation to run away, to deny them, or to explain them away. That is what Christmas haters do: They prefer to live in a world without enchantment. The only problem is that a disenchanted world is an impoverished world.
Today more than ever, we know that there are many more mysteries and questions that remain unresolved and unanswered. Ours is a world still enchanted, still full of God’s mystery. Remember Mary and Joseph. Confronted with things beyond them, they believed and pondered those mysteries. And thanks to Christmas, we know that God, Who is Absolute Mystery, has a human face and wears a loving smile.
And His name is Jesus.
A blessed Christmas to all!
Slides by Karol Yee
Video courtesy of Martin Gomez