by Abbot Eugene Hayes, O.Praem.
“Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep! Rise up from the dead and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again, for your sake God became man.”
For those of you who come regularly or annually to the Abbey you might recall that I have quoted these words several times at the twenty Christmas midnight Masses that I have been blessed and indeed privileged to celebrate as the abbot of this richly blessed community of Norbertines. These are words taken from Sermon 185 of St. Augustine which the Church prayed as part of the office of readings, the liturgy of the Hours. They are words especially addressed to you, all of you who are here tonight, all of us who have lived these weeks of Advent, this time of anticipation of what we are celebrating tonight as St. Augustine puts it so well and so simply: “I tell you again for your sake, God became man.”
But why is it that we are told to awake? Certainly not because we are sitting here after midnight in the earliest hour of a new day. No, it is the whole Church, and indeed the whole world, who are commanded to awake, regardless of what time in these next twenty four hours they devote themselves to worship, prayer, attention to, and meditation upon the mystery at hand, that God became one of us, just like us in all things but sin. And that, brothers and sisters, is a big exception, like us in all things but sin. For although fully a man except for sin, He remained the one who is the very fullness of grace and truth, the Incarnate Word of God, God who takes on our flesh and who, as one of the books of the Jewish Scriptures (and our Scriptures) reminds us so poetically, “while all things were in quiet silence and the night was in the midst of her course, leapt down from heaven, from God’s royal throne.”
The night of which the Wisdom of God speaks is not just the natural night outside of this church but includes the darkness most often hidden, which accompanies every minute of every day, the darkness which to greater or lesser degree lies close to the heart of every one of our race, save for the Virgin Mary, her who was conceived and born spared from such a fate. We fool ourselves or allow ourselves to be fooled as we use or abuse or are abused by the unbelievably advanced social media of our day, which would have us think no time in history is as bad as this time in which we live. No, regardless of appearances, greater darkness has come upon this world of ours and greater still, for we know it from Scripture, is yet to come. And in the midst of this, still the Church, Christ Himself in His mystical body, successor to the Body in which He came on this night, still Christ in His Church will continue to say to us “Awake” from that enveloping cloud, awake from the dark and dreary condition imposed by the hearts of men who influence and rule, whether nameless and unknown, or famous and well known, called by name, be it Caesar or Quirinius or ISIS or by any other name, even Kim Jung Un.
The light to which we are summoned to awake is far greater than any of these, far greater than rulers past and those rulers still to come, from which we must pray each day to be preserved. This is the brightness, the light, the happiness of this night and of this day during which He associated Himself to us, so that we are and can be much more than what we see, when we look in the mirror or when we look at those who fill our lives each day. For it was and is in the middle of the night, whether a darkness within or without, when the world was asleep, that the Almighty One leapt down and became one of His, cast His lot with us, united Himself and gave Himself to us.
And so as we celebrate this Holy Eucharist, this sacred action of thanksgiving in which the one born on this night is given up once more to His Father’s will and given to us that we might be nourished unto life eternal, may we thank God especially for this sacred exchange, that which the liturgy calls it: “O marvelous exchange,” that first exchange of Christmas gifts effected between God and us, by which He partook of our humanity that we might partake day in and day out of His divinity.
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