A child is born for us

Christmas Homily by Fr Anthony Akinwale, OP
Osservatore Romano 2013

At a time of intense political crisis, the prophet Isaiah addressed the words we heard from the First Reading to the kingdom of Judah: “The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.”

At a time the kingdom of Judah faced two potent threats, one from Assyria with its highly efficient military, the other from Syria and Israel; at a time Ahaz king of Judah had to make a tough choice between subjecting his kingdom to the wickedness of Syria and Israel or subjecting his kingdom to the oppression of Assyria; at a time  Ahaz proved to be indecisive, not knowing whether to succumb to the threat posed by Assyria or to enter into a military alliance with Syria and Israel in order to face Assyria,  Isaiah prophesied: “there is a child born for us, a son given to us.”

Isaiah had warned Ahaz in the oracle of the Immanuel which we heard on Sunday not to enter into a military alliance with Syria and Israel in order to face Assyria, but to rely on God who had already given him a sign, the sign of the Immanuel. “The maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’.”  

Isaiah assured Judah that with the birth of the child named Immanuel, the darkness that covered the land, the darkness of political crisis, the darkness of imminent military invasion and conquest, would soon disappear.  For, in the birth of this child, the people that walked in darkness had seen a great light.  The light that shone on the people that walked in darkness was   a child.

And this mysterious child is named: “Wonder-Counselor, Mighty-God, Eternal Father, Prince-of-Peace.” He is called “Wonder-Counselor” because he would not be indecisive like Ahaz, neither would he be led astray by bad advisers.  He is called “Mighty-God” (God-warrior) because he himself would lead Judah to overcome the military might and efficiency of Assyria.  He is called “Eternal Father” because of the high quality of leadership he would provide for the land. And he is called “Prince-of-Peace” because the high quality of leadership he would provide would replace crisis with stability. 

There is something else to be said about these names, and that is, two of those are names given to God in the book of Isaiah. God is the one called “Wonder-Counselor” (28:29); God is “Mighty God” (10:21).  And of course, God is the Everlasting Father who brings peace.

The prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Immanuel presumably pointed to Hezekiah. But Hezekiah did not fit into the description of the child Isaiah spoke about.  He was neither wise, nor mighty, nor fatherly.  He was not the Prince-of-Peace Isaiah had foretold.  And so, Isaiah looked to a future when his vision would be fulfilled, a future when a son of David would become king on whom shall rest the spirit of the Lord, as we heard during Advent: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.”

Tonight, we hear the Gospel according to Luke present the birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.  Tonight, Isaiah’s vision of a people that walked in the dark seeing a great light becomes real and concrete in the Gospel according to Luke.  The people that walked in the dark were the people subject to the tyranny, the whims and caprices of the powerful Caesar Augustus.  They were the people living in the Roman Empire, crushed by a ruler who was celebrated as bringer of peace but who in fact used the might of his dictatorship under the pretext of making peace.

The people that walked in the dark were the shepherds “in the countryside close by” who took their turns to watch over their flock “during the night”.  At the birth of Jesus, the angel of the Lord appeared to them “and the glory of the Lord shone round them”.  In those shepherds, the people that walked in darkness had seen a great light.

And those shepherds.  They represent us.  For we too walk in the dark.  We walk in sin. In the story of creation in the book of Genesis, light was the first creature to be made by God (Gen 1:3).  Light enables us to see the beauty in creation.  Then came sin.  Sin diminishes the beauty of creation.  Sin dims the light that enables us to see.  Sin brings darkness.  Sin is darkness.  Sin darkens our intellect to the point where we find it difficult to differentiate between what is really true and what is false, between information and misinformation, between wise counsel and manipulation.  And, since our will can only choose the good understood by the intellect, when the intellect mistakes what is false for what is true, the will chooses what appears to be good.  This is our story.  This is the story of each of us. Our intellect is darkened by sin.  Our paths are paths of darkness, paths to darkness. Truly, we are people walking in darkness. 

But in the birth of Jesus, light is shone on our path.  “The angel of the Lord appeared to them [to the shepherds in the dark] and the glory of the Lord shone round them.”  God shows that he cares for us.  He does not leave us in the darkness of sin. 

In the birth of the child born in Bethlehem God offers us light.  His birth is the dawn of a new creation.  Just as in the first creation, he created light first, in this new creation, our redemption, he offers us the light of Christ, the light that Jesus is.  His glory shines on those who prefer God’s glory to theirs.  His light shines on those who prefer his way to the way of sin.  We are no longer disfigured by sin.  We are beautified by the glory of the Lord.  And this light that shines on us is the love of God that confounds us, the love that makes the Mighty God come to us as a fragile little child. For this child is no mere child.  A child who is called “Mighty God”, a child who is named “Eternal Father” is a child, but no mere child. 

A little child, like light, makes the difference.  The child brings joy by his simplicity.  It is like we get complicated as we grow in age. It is like the older we get the greater our distance from innocence. I was at Mass on Sunday at the parish in Sango, and from the presider’s chair, I noticed two little girls, identical twins, exchange blows.  I made a sign for them to come to the sanctuary.  “Why are you fighting?” they would not answer me.  The next I thing I said, “Offer each other a handshake.”  They did. And they walked away from the sanctuary hand in hand.  They remained hand in hand throughout the Mass, and even when they came to say goodbye at the end of Mass.

We see this in many instances, how God uses the birth of a child to open a new page in a family, to free members of a family from enslavement to the past.  A young interracial couple I met, a Nigerian man and an American woman, told me of the objection of the parents of the woman to their getting married.  They would not want their daughter to marry a black man, a Nigerian for that matter.  We are famous and notorious.  Our Ghanaian brothers and sisters, not knowing what to make of our fame and notoriety say in gratitude to God: “Thank God, God is not an alata.”  On the day this couple got married, the woman’s parents stood at the back of the Church, weeping.  But when the first child was born, their attitude to the union became positive.  And that familiar experience God uses even now in the birth of his only begotten Son. 

A little child refreshes relationships by his innocence precisely because his innocence challenges our claims to innocence, our presumption.  The light that this child is exposes our sins of malice, our hatred and resentment as things from which we have been freed so that we can embrace a new life.  This child calls us back to real innocence because in his birth, to use the words of the Second Reading, “God’s grace has been revealed”.

God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ

This child makes a difference because this child will sacrifice himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and purify us so that we would be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.

            At the birth of this child, the heavenly throng burst into song, praising God:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace to men who enjoy his favour.

This child brings us peace.  In Jesus, God gives us peace not because we deserve it, but because of his mercy.  While Caesar Augustus used his military might to impose peace of his own making, peace of his own notion and imagination, the Mighty God uses the simplicity and vulnerability of a child to offer us peace. God is teaching us that peace is never imposed.  Genuine peace is an offer from God waiting to be received by men and women of good will.  The peace God offers us is not the peace of political astuteness, not peace of superior military strategy, but peace that comes from childlike innocence.  It is those who desire this innocence in themselves first who win God’s favour.

In the birth of Christ, love has found us.  And in the words of the Sussex Carol, beautifully arranged by June Nixon, which the choir will sing at Offertory:

Why should men on earth be so sad
since our Redeemer made us glad. 
When from our sins he set us free. 
All for to gain our liberty.

Filled with gratitude to God for the birth of this child, his only begotten Son, the words of Fred Pratt Green in the last stanza of his hymn “For the fruits of all creation” come to mind:

For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us,
Most of all, that love has found us
Thanks be to God.
Father Anthony Akinwale, O.P. (Dominican Priory, Ibadan, Nigeria)
(25 December 2013)