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Christmas - Mass at Dawn

Entrance Antiphon: Is 9:1, 5; Lk 1:33 — “Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born for us; and He will be called Wondrous God, Prince of peace, Father of future ages: and His reign will be without end.”

First Reading: Is 62:11-12 — “Behold, your Savior comes!”

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 97:1, 6, 11-12 — “A light will shine on us this day: the Lord is born for us.”

Second Reading: Ti 3:4-7 — “Because of His mercy, He saved us.”

Alleluia: Lk 2:14 — Alleluia, alleluia. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel: Lk 2:15-20 — “The shepherds found Mary & Joseph and the infant.”

Communion Antiphon: Zec 9:9 — “Rejoice, O Daughter Sion; lift up praise, Daughter Jerusalem: Behold, your King will come, the Holy One and Savior of the world.”

Good morning! Welcome to this celebration of Christmas here at the Parish of Saint Michael the Archangel. Speaking for myself as well as all of the staff of the Parish and our School, I would like to welcome all of you this morning. Welcome to all parishioners, their families, and their friends. Welcome to all who might be visiting from other parishes. Welcome to all the young people and college students who are home for their semester break. For those of you who may not know me, my name is Fr. Larry Polansky, and this is my sixth Christmas here as Pastor. I was ordained in 2009 and have previously served in Vineland at Christ the Good Shepherd Parish, in Mullica Hill / Woodstown / Elmer at the Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit, in Somers Point as Chaplain of Shore Medical Center and in residence at Saint Joseph Church, and in Saint Peter Church in Merchantville.

Before I begin, I have to tell you that a number of people approached me over the last few weeks and asked if I would reprise my Peanuts Christmas Day homily. Now as you might have heard me say before, I don’t usually repeat homilies. When I told them that, they also reminded me they have heard other priests repeat homilies on special occasions. And so, I caved ... twice this year, actually. I updated a homily I gave last night at the Vigil Mass about the Christmas Carol “I Heard the Bells,” since the Sight and Sound movie is out in theaters and I had the opportunity to see it. It gave several insights of which I was unaware when I first wrote the homily over ten years ago ... and after I did some research ... found those insights were historically accurate and so I updated it. The one I’m about to deliver has been tweaked but is essentially unchanged.

When we think of the Christmas story and all of the elements it contains, the Holy Family, the shepherds, the wise men, the angels, the animals, King Herod … all of them come from the four Gospels by Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke, and Saint John. The entire Christmas story has parts found in each of the Gospels and we have sort of combined them into one.

Like a lot of people of a certain age, I remember one of the first times I heard the Christmas Gospel proclaimed ... and it wasn’t in a church. It was in the living room of my home in Marlton, New Jersey, watching an eighteen-inch Zenith black-and-white TV. Once again, that house and all those memories of Thanksgivings, Christmases, and New Year’s past have been very present to me this year as the holidays approached.

As I remember it, the person proclaiming the Gospel that evening wasn’t a priest or a deacon or a minister. It was a little boy with a security blanket … and with the advent of color TV in our home, I realized the blanket was blue. His name was Linus. And I am referring to the television program, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

A good 15 or 20 years ago now, I caught a documentary on public television (and after checking, it’s still Channel 12 around here) about Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. He talked about how the Christmas show came about and the battles he had to fight with CBS. The executives were nervous about not having a laugh track ... they were nervous about using real children for the voices ... and they were really really nervous about having Scripture included. God forbid that you should have a Christmas special that actually mentions Christ! But Charles Schulz stuck to his guns. And the result is one of television’s most beloved and most popular Christmas specials.

A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965 and today it lives on. I’m proud to say it is a part of my beloved Christmas collection ... right alongside How the Grinch Stole Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life,White Christmas, Patrick Stewart’s rendition of A Christmas Carol, as well as many, many others … A Christmas Story, that elusive search for a Red-Rider BB Gun, which has been on TNT and TBS since 8 o’clock last night. Prior to the advent of DVDs and streaming, every time A Charlie Brown Christmas was shown, it was one of the highest-rated programs on television for its particular timeslot. Now-a-days, you can pretty much watch it any time you want. I’ve got to admit that I have more than once. I’ve watched Charlie Brown, the Grinch, Heat Miser and Snow Miser, and all of those beloved Christmas characters as the decorations were being set up in the Rectory. A couple of others have made my annual watching list as well ... Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Card, A Christmas Carol (I have nine [9] different versions of that classic), A Christmas Angel, The Polar Express, It’s a Wonderful Life ... you get the idea ... I love all things Christmas.

I think you all know … I spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing my homilies … and for someone who works really hard to prepare at least one homily a weekend for Mass … or once in a while two during the week if I have a wedding or a funeral the same day … or last night and today preaching at the Vigil Mass for Christmas and then for the Christmas Masses during the Night and at Dawn … It’s a humbling reminder to me and I think to those of us who stand in front of a congregation every week … to learn that sometimes the most powerful pulpit isn’t a pulpit at all. And often the most effective preacher isn’t actually a preacher.

Reading the four beautiful Christmas Gospels (last night for the Vigil, for the Mass During the Night, for the Mass at Dawn, and for the Mass During the Day) ... I found myself once again marveling at their power … What is it about Saint Matthew’s, Saint Mark’s, Saint Luke’s or Saint John’s telling of the Incarnation and the Nativity that makes it so enduring, and so endearing? Year after year … century after century … whether on television or in church … we’re drawn to this story and moved by it again and again. When we combine the elements as we have ... it is ... for so many of us, the Christmas story. All of us, in addition to a tree, have at least one Nativity prominently displayed somewhere in our homes … and so this story of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is still relevant and still important.

Part of it, I think, is the cast of characters assembled. If we look at Saint Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel we heard last night and this morning, and as was told in A Charlie Brown Christmas, we need to remember that he was the only Evangelist who was not Jewish. His Gospel is beautifully inclusive. And so, once again this year, we Christians are reminded that All Lives Matter. He is the Evangelist for the outsider and the outcast ... and so in his birth narrative you have everyone. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, even Caesar is mentioned. The only ones who don’t appear are the Wise Men, but they’ll pop up on their own holiday … the Epiphany … coming towards the end of the Christmas Season on January 8th. In these narratives, you really do see the world spread before us. Everyone is welcome at the stable. There is no evidence of a cancel culture evident.

But beyond the setting, and the sentiment, there is a truth here that should strike at the heart of every believing Christian ... that truth that defines Christmas.

It is there, in the middle of the narrative which we heard last night, in the very first words that are spoken. Do not be afraid. And then it gets even better. “Behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” “A Savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”

These are the words mankind has been longing for. With this moment, the course of human history changes forever. God has become one of us. The Savior’s very name proclaims the incredible truth that no one ever thought possible … “Emmanuel” … “God is with us.” It is a stunning thought … almost overwhelming … And we are told: Do not be afraid.”

Across more than two thousand years, those words reach out to us in joy … in hope … and in consolation. No matter who you are … no matter where you live … no matter what your circumstances … this is what matters … Do not be afraid.

To the sick and the suffering … to the lonely and the lost ... to all those who feel that God has forgotten you … Do not be afraid … Because even in this darkest of nights … there is light. A Savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord … Here is our hope.

And please remember … He didn’t come in grandeur or majesty to intimidate us. He came as the most helpless and dependent creature of all: a baby … in a manger … in Bethlehem. Because He loves us so much … God came to us as someone we could not help but love … So, do not be afraid.

Yes … I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Even in spite of lingering COVID or the flu ... a Savior has been born. And He continues to be born in our hearts … if only we will allow Him in. That, I think, is the great power of Christmas … that’s the reason why year after year that the beautiful passages from the Gospels, especially Saint Luke’s, resonate. Christmas is about redemption … yes … But it is also about God’s overpowering love for us ... it is His reassurance to a troubled … frightened … terror-stricken … war-torn world that He is with us, through everything … He struggles with us … He dreams with us … He grieves with us … And … He hopes with us.

Remember what we call Him. Emmanuel. God is with us. An interesting observation someone made to me after they heard this homily in 2017. As Linus gives his monologue at the end of the program, when he gets to the lines “fear not,” his trusted, blue security blanket is dropped out of his hands … if only for a few short moments … and so even Linus experiences the power of the words … Do Not Be Afraid. And so, I ask you to just look at the beauty of the scenes around us in this church and in your homes … beautiful trees and poinsettias … the awesome Nativity … please close your eyes and listen to the immortal words of that great philosopher, Linus Van Pelt …

"Lights please …

'And there were in the same country … shepherds abiding in the field … keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them … and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not … for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you … You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ … That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

And so let me say ... Merry Christmas! I wish all of you a Blessed, Holy, Healthy, and Safe Christmas Season and a grace-filled New Year! I will keep all of you in prayer and hope you will do the same for me.

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