Abbot Brendan’s Homily at Christmas Midnight Mass

“But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” So writes the prophet Micah.

Tonight the eyes of the world turn to this little town of Bethlehem. A place so small and so insignificant that there were two of them! Did you know that? There were two Bethlehems in Israel at the time of Jesus. The Bethlehem where Jesus was born is in the south, near Jerusalem, Bethlehem Ephratah and the Bethlehem which is now a heap of ruins in the north, near Nazareth, Bethlehem Zebulun.

Three great figures in the Old Testament are linked with our Bethlehem and help unfold this Christmas mystery for us; two women and one man. Rachel, who died in childbirth with the word Benoni (son of sorrow) on her lips; she is buried in Bethlehem. Ruth, the model of loving-kindness and fidelity, who after her husband’s death returned with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem where she found joy again. And finally David, the great king of Israel, anointed by Samuel in Bethlehem, his home town.

Bethlehem means, House of Bread, and Ephratah, means to be fruitful. In this fruitful house of bread the Mystery of the Nativity unfolds; the king of kings in David’s line is born in Bethlehem as Benoni, the son of sorrow; Christ takes on all our humanity, with its joys and its sorrows, represented by Rachel and Ruth. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

The Little town of Bethlehem is important because it reminds us that the Nativity of the Lord is real. Jesus was born as a refugee. His family was forced to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem. Later they had to flee the brutality of King Herod and go into hiding in Egypt for two years. St Matthew’s Gospel, quoting the prophet Jeremiah, has Rachel weeping and lamenting for the victims of Herod, the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem. The cross is never far from the mystery of Salvation. Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus was a besieged city. Today Bethlehem is again a besieged city surrounded on three sides by a 25 foot high concrete wall.

God chose a stable in Bethlehem, a place of little consequence. If we want to find him we have to go where he is to be found; the Bethlehems of this world and there are far more than two of them. We have to leave behind the delusions of our own greatness, our yearnings for things we will never have and people we will never be and turn to what is essential. We have to listen to the message God has sent us in this Mystery.

The Nativity is truly a mystery of joy and of sadness. It is truly the Bethlehem of Rachel and of Ruth. Yet the Nativity has above all a taste of hope. In its revelation of God to us it speaks of tenderness and love. God chooses to present himself as poor and frail in our midst; he is not threatening. His choice of place, Bethlehem, the House of Bread, reminds us that he has come to be bread for us. He has come to feed and serve us. He is bread that is broken and so there is a connection even here between the Nativity and the cross.

This is what the shepherds came to understand on that first Christmas night. Hope has come into the world and it is weak and fragile as a child, but the light it brings causes the angels to be filled with joy. We need this hope, because it is too easy to drift into the darkness. We all carry our worries, sickness, pain, loss and grief. So many are filled with hatred, turn to violence and even place guns rather than toys into the hands of children. Tonight, on this one night, we are confronted with peace and asked, is there not a better way? There is a better way, but we have to be willing to listen.

When Gabriel arrives to bring Mary the news that she will bear a child, she listens. When the angel tells Joseph in his dreams what is about to happen, he listens. The shepherds listen when the angel announces the “good news of great joy.” In the passage immediately following this, they go out and tell the world what they have seen and the world listens. God came into no other than this troubled, wounded and real world. He is real and wants to enter into our real world with all its complexities and fears. Christmas is real. It is not a myth or a wonder world. Christmas is God’s promise to us that we will have life, peace, and a future. Are you listening?

The tears of Rachel and the joy of Ruth have blessed this place of Bethlehem. The oil of the prophet Samuel which anointed David king over Israel was poured into this earth and made it holy. These famous inhabitants of the past, Rachel, Ruth and David are joined by the inhabitants of every age, represented by the shepherds, in acclaiming the mystery of the Nativity. We now join together with them in saying yes to hope as we welcome God’s joy into our world. Let us listen for the voice of the Lord and enter into His peace. The flesh has become the hinge of salvation! The flesh is weak, but the light of hope it carries is as bright as the star of Bethlehem.