Simbang Gabi Homilies: Finale with Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ

Posted on December 24, 2011


Brothers and sisters, the second preface of Advent, the one we read in the Mass today, articulates for us what our spirit should be like these days so that when He comes, He will find us watching in prayer, our hearts full of wonder and praise. So tonight, there is nothing new which will be said. Let an old man like myself just go back with you to old-fashioned themes and words of Christmas. Nothing new; just to help us watch in prayer as Christmas approaches.

In my mid-40s, some 40 years ago, a priest-batchmate of mine said to me, in the evening of Christmas day, “Now that we are in our 40s, Christmas isn’t the same anymore, is it?” The delight of children, that golden glow of expectation and excitement, that Christmas eye isn’t there any longer… It’s prayer time, it’s boredom… What does Christmas mean now for us?

Maybe tonight, then, we can speak a little through this feeling or lack of it. For those in their 40s and over among you… if you will, our darkness of spirit. The saints tell us that it purifies faith for us, that it may lead us toward that deeper truth that our faith goes within itself.

Notice how the saints – for them, Christmas is never seen alone and by itself. For them, there are always the two poles to the Christian mystery – the two poles in the life and meaning of Jesus. One, the beginning – God’s Son becoming man, the Incarnation. Two, the ending – the Paschal Mystery, Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Two poles in the Jesus story, two poles in the one Christian mystery – crib and cross, but one Christ mystery, one indivisible mystery of our faith. To split them off, one from the other, is to miss their truest meaning. To separate them is to fail to see them true, full, and complete. We only understand them together – the one total mystery of Jesus Christ.

The Incarnation, Bethlehem, is at one end. Bethlehem breaks into history as start of the mystery, alive and shining. Bethlehem is the starlit, song-filled, angel-filled sign. God’s Son came to take up everything that we call human, all of human living. Everything that makes up our human existence – joys and sorrows, ups and downs, sickness and health, living and dying. God’s Son came to make them all His own – make all his own only except sin, Scriptures say. Yes, make them all his own and fill them with His presence – fill them with His healing and forgiving presence, His divinizing grace, His holiness and His love. That good spiritual writer John Shane put in in this way: “There are now no more unvisited places in our lives.” There are now no more unvisited places in our lives… It’s true. Everywhere now, God is with us. If we could only learn to see with the eyes of faith, God with us, Emmanuel.

But because there is so much brokenness in our lives – most of it brought about by us and our sins – because there is so much pain and suffering and weakness, fear, failure in our days, in a true sense, what God’s Son took up most on into Himself, what He took up first and foremost, was our suffering. He came to inhabit our vulnerability, our hurt, our woundedness, our weariness, our weakness, even our dying. He came to take up all of it… to bring with it His grace, His feelings, and His power, to bring within it the fullness of His divinity. But yes, first of all, He had to take everything into himself, in sharing and solidarity. And that night, the second sense of the mystery, the dying on the Cross, the dying, the pierced open side, the pierced open heart, that was God’s deepest response to our sin and our suffering. We cite Austin Farrer: “God did not give us explanations. He gave us His Son. He gave up His Son for us.”

Thus, never one without the other, the two great dimensions of the mystery of our faith – Crib and Cross, Bethlehem and Golgotha, birth and death and glory. Yes, glory at the end, but first the passion on the Cross before rising again. As we said, the saints who understood our faith, they never lost sight of this.

What I thought to be the best movie of the year I saw – I don’t know how many of you did… on DVDs – “Of Gods and Men,” that French film at Cannes about the Cistercian monks in Algiers who were victims of hate and mindless violence, not many years ago. There are two superb themes in the movie, linked with the liturgy of the monks. Christmas night, when the danger of their lives comes near to them, and they must choose to stay or to go. And the holy day, Holy Thursday, after all have all chosen, all of them, to stay, their (inaudible) suffer together, sharing bread and wine, and knowing that their passion was finally coming; their journey to their Calvary, the price of their fidelity to commitment and love, the total gift simply of their lives.

Crib and Cross – the saints kept the two together. (inaudible) great events in the life of St. Francis of Assisi… December 1223, at 41, already broken in body and in spirit, from so much labor and hardship, poverty and penance, indeed depression because the Rule that he had written for his brotherhood had just been approved, but no longer with the total radical poverty and starvation that he sought. The ideal that he wanted for himself and his brothers… “Naked to follow the naked Christ.” On the rocky hillside, he would create his belen for the Midnight Mass, with a real ox and a real ass, manger and straw, to show people how poor and powerless God made His Son, from birth to death. And there, the wooden figure of the Christchild came alive in his arms, and radiantly smiled up at him, responding to his love. And a few months later, in September… a seraph came down from heaven imprinting on his flesh, searing into his body, the stigmata: wounds and hands and feet and sides, so that his likeness to Jesus would be complete. “This is my body given up for you.”

Ignatius of Loyola, in his contemplation of the Nativity, in his Spiritual Exercises, he pictures Joseph and Mary – Mary on a donkey, on their hard journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; their search for lodging that night; the birth of Jesus in a cave. Joseph and Mary labored… so that the Lord might be born in utter poverty, and after so many trials of hunger, of thirst, of heat and cold, of injuries and affronts, to die on the Cross… “And all of this, for me.”

In Greek Christian art, the two scenes of Mary holding the body of Jesus are Bethlehem, in the stable, the little baby cradled in her arms; and Calvary, at the foot of the Cross, the bleeding, bruised body and his head laid on her lap, as in Michelangelo’s Pieta. The broken body of her Son. And as we look on her, we hear the words that Jesus spoke in a vision to Blessed Julia of Norwich: “Wouldst thou know the meaning of this thing? Wit it well, wit it well. Love is its meaning.”

And so brothers and sisters, we see that Christmas is not just the breathless beauty, the glow and the glory of the “silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” It is also the Cross and dying, pierced feet and hands, pierced open side.

When we are in our 40s or 50s or over, when the high feeling of Christmas goes, this childlike excitement and expectation, the faith can lead us through the darkness where crib and cross are one in the mystery of Jesus. Faith can lead us in silence and depth… We hear again, “Wouldst thou know the meaning of this thing? Wit it well. Love is its meaning.”

That is what Christmas really means for all of us who believe – for children, for the young in their teens or after, for those in their 40s or 50s and over, even for us who live to 80 or more – Christmas is—, love is its meaning. God’s love for each of us. God’s love for each of you. We kneel before the manger, all of us, you and me; yes, even those of you who even now cannot believe that it is really true. But it is true, you know. You are infinitely cherished…

Let me end tonight with a Christmas carol. The Gospel today centers on Mary, who is the woman of the Advent. This carol, I learned in our novitiate, 70 years ago. I loved it then, I love it more today. Its name is “Sleep, Sleep My Own.” Mary’s words by the manger to her Son.

1. Sleep, sleep, my own, Thy mother’s arms enfold Thee.
Lo, at Thy borning the winds of the morning grow still.
Sleep, sleep, my Child, bright angels behold Thee.
Now all is peace in the cave of the hill.

Ref. Sing, Holy Angels, your song from the skies.
Sleeping and dreaming, the King of heaven lies

2. Dream, O my own, Thy dreams be all of heaven.
Dream not of sorrow that waits on the morrow for Thee.
Dream of the hearts that to Thee will be given.
Feel not the pain of the nails on the tree.

Dream of the hearts that to Thee will be given. Brothers and sisters, what hearts, whose hearts? Our hearts. Shall we bring them tonight, tomorrow night, to the Child, so we go, too, and kneel by the manger, and give him, even when we are past 40s or 50s or 60s, whatever. Our hearts and the true seriousness are love.

Come, let us adore Him. Venite adoremus Dominum.

(Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, professor emeritus at the Loyola School of Theology, delivered this homily during the Ateneo’s last Simbang Gabi at the Church of the Gesu this year. Transcript by The Wide Shot.)