HOMILY, The Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2014
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
“Life from Light”
If we have any speleologists here at Mass today, you probably already know that the largest cave in the world is located in Vietnam. This cave is called Sơn Đoòng, which means “Mountain River Cave”. It is approximately nine kilometers long, its largest chamber is 200 meters high and 150 meters wide, and it contains stalagmites up to 70 meters tall. Not being a fan of the metric system, so I just know that means the whole thing is “really big”.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring feature of Sơn Đoòng, however, is that one of its chambers houses a subterranean forest! How is that possible? Well, the cave is carved entirely out of limestone, which at certain points along the cave’s roof has proven too weak to stand the test of time and gravity. In the case of this particular chamber, a huge section of the roof has collapsed, allowing light to cascade down 200 meters from the ground level and to flood the vast interior space, making it possible for life to emerge and thrive where otherwise all would have been dark, dank, and lifeless.
A few months ago, I watched part of a BBC video entitled Life from Light, in which a cave explorer with a heavy Scottish accent marveled at his experience exploring Sơn Đoòng, at first finding only darkness, stone, and water—typical cave stuff—but then suddenly coming upon what he described as a “wonderland” of life and light. There are a variety of animals and plants in the forest, including trees up to 100 feet tall. I won’t be able to manage the accent very well, but the Scotsman said in a kind of reverie: “It’s a thriving ecosystem here!” I also read an article in which another explorer with over 35 years’ experience described Sơn Đoòng by calling it “overwhelming” and saying it is “by far one of the most unique and unusual caves I have ever seen.”
Having once descended 1200 feet into the Detroit Salt Mine for the blessing of a shrine to St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, I can testify to the utter blackness that encompasses you when you leave all light behind. In the depths of a cave, it’s so dark that you wouldn’t dream of seeing your own hand held right in front of your face. To see light again is to see the world transformed, and, as we find in Sơn Đoòng, the gift of the Sun’s light brings also the possibility of life, even a superabundance of life where before there was no life to be seen.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
The image of light shining in the darkness is at the heart of our celebration of Christmas. For the past four weeks, the Advent wreath has been a symbol for us of the coming of the light of Christ into the world. The prophesy we heard in today’s First Reading is echoed in Chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel by Zechariah, who prophesies the birth of his own nephew, Jesus:
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And, of course, the fact that Christmas takes place when it does, as the days have shrunk to their shortest length of the year, and are just beginning to grow longer once again, is a reminder of the darkness which enveloped the world before the coming of Christ, and of the power of His light shining into a world now being redeemed.
“O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
A number of the best-known Christmas carols echo Scripture in speaking of the coming of Jesus as the shining of light into the world. What does light help us to do? It helps us to see. It helps us to understand where we are and what’s going on around us. We can even see and understand ourselves better. It helps us to start moving again, without fear of injury or of getting lost. Light takes away fear and gives us a sense of hope. Light brings life.
The coming of Christ’s light does all of this for us. And we need Christ’s light very much today, as living in today’s culture is kind of like living in a cave. For decades, people have been turning away from God, denying Him, and living as if there was nothing more to life than what we see around us. Back in the 1970s, a certain popular singer dared people to “imagine there’s no heaven.” Whatever he meant by that line, people have been imagining that there is no heaven and no God, or at least that we could never really know Him. Now, obviously we can’t blame a song for all of the atheism out there today. There are countless reasons people have denied God. But they have denied Him, and the world has been closing in on itself right-along. The “cave’s roof” over our heads is really about the shutting-out of God, the denial of anything beyond this world. Countless people are feeling alone and in the dark, and that is a terrible place to be.
At this point we must ask the question: What kind of light shines with the coming of Jesus? There was a wonderful question-and-answer with which Pope Benedict XVI introduced the first-published volume of his Jesus of Nazareth books. Pope Benedict wrote:
What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?
The answer is very simple: God…. He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.”
This is the truth that ought to fill our hearts and minds as we stand before the Nativity scene, as we come before the Lord’s altar today: that Christmas is about the invisible God becoming visible, shining His light into our dark world. That is what happened at Bethlehem, and that is what happens on this altar. In the Holy Eucharist, Bethlehem becomes present here and now. Calvary becomes present today. The Upper Room of Holy Thursday, and Easter Sunday, and of Pentecost, becomes present today.
Every time we celebrate Mass, another hole is opened in the “cave roof” overhead, the divine light shines down in another place and time. Lives are changed. Death is conquered. Sin is put to flight. There is comfort for the poor, and the sick, the lonely, those in distress of every kind—and for you—not because some earthly cure for our troubles has been discovered, but because the balm of God’s own presence has been applied.
This is the meaning of the light we receive from the little Child of Bethlehem, and it is the light we need to share with others, bringing to those who dwell in the shadow of death the God Who can save them. Whenever we bring Jesus to others, light of the Son shines in the darkness. And where the light of the Son shines, there will be always life in abundance. That is how we echo the angels, how we give “Glory to God in the highest” and bring “peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
[Pictured: “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622]