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The Vigil of Christmas - I Heard the Bells ...

Entrance Antiphon: Ex 16:6-7 — “Today you will know that the Lord will come, and He will save us, and in the morning you will see His glory.”

First Reading: Is 62:1-5 — “The Lord delights in you.”

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29 — “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.”

Second Reading: Acts 13:16-17, 22-25 — “Paul bears witness to Christ, the Son of David.”

Alleluia: Alleluia, alleluia. “Tomorrow the wickedness of the earth will be destroyed: the Savior of the world will reign over us.” Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel: Mt 1:1-25 — (Long Form)“The genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David;”Mt 1:18-25 — (Short Form) “Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus.”

Communion Antiphon: Is 40:5 — “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see the salvation of our God.”

Good evening! Welcome to this opening celebration of Christmas here in Franklinville, New Jersey … at Nativity Church ... part of 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 evening. 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.

Tonight as my Christmas homily, I’d like to give a brief history of a song you might know. And if you are a fan of Sight and Sound Theatre in Lancaster and saw that they have recently released their first movie, you may know the Christmas carol to which I refer. I had the opportunity to see the movie earlier in December and I watched it again yesterday. It gave me some insight into what I’m about to tell you. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has an interesting pedigree. It resurfaced and became popular once again in the 1960s, but not for a reason you might think. It seems that people liked it because of its reference to the death of God. The original poem was penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. The poet’s wife had recently died and the movie graphically portrayed the manner in which that happened. Then his oldest son, who enlisted in the Union Army without his father’s permission, was severely wounded.

The carol we sing today comes from the 1950s and the artist Johnny Marks. Minus its references to cannons, what remains is Longfellow’s faith: “And in despair I bowed my head; There is no peace on earth I said; ‘For hate is strong and mocks the sound … Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’” When you look around at the world around you or turn on the television to watch the news, scary how those words resonate even today …

But Longfellow’s answer came from the bells of Christmas Day: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.’”

Traditionally, at the first Mass of Christmas Eve, the long genealogy of Jesus is read. Tonight’s Gospel is what follows that text as written by Saint Matthew. People often wonder why such a long genealogy is read at this Mass? More often than not, the Gospel is shortened and that long list is not read … especially because the early Christmas Masses are considered “Family Masses” and usually have large numbers of small children at them. Well, the Gospel (with the long genealogy) was chosen by the Church to prove to all the believers of all times that Jesus was truly the Messiah. It was to prove that through Jesus, salvation came to the world. The genealogy is important especially for the liturgy and celebration of Christmas. Remember this celebration of Christmas begins tonight, but the celebration should continue until January 9, 2023 … The Baptism of the Lord … sixteen (16) days from today. From the time of Abraham, God prepared the way for His Gift, for His Son, Jesus. It proves that the promises God made to Abraham had finally been fulfilled. If you get a chance, look at the genealogy. Read the names. They are our ancestors in faith. Through holy and righteous people like Boaz and Ruth … through sinful people like Rahab, David, Solomon, and the Bathsheba, who was apparently so bad she’s only mentioned in the genealogy as the “wife of Uriah,” God prepares the way for His coming in human flesh. It shows us His movements through history. Again, they are OUR ancestors … God works through each one of us. It also demonstrates the awesomeness of God. He can accomplish His goal through His chosen instruments. The list contains both saints and grave sinners. They symbolize all of us, with our strengths and weaknesses, who need the saving power of God. Jesus came, humanly speaking, from some great and talented people, but equally from the poor and insignificant. This list tells us that God can write straight, even with crooked lines. He does that in the lives of each one of us. The genealogy gives us perspective on how God works with us, His creation, to finally present the Gift of His Son to the world.

The Gospel continues with the account of Joseph’s dream. Joseph, who is the “son of David” is close to God. Jesus is tied into our history. God is faithful to His promises. When the angel speaks the astonishing news, Joseph accepts it without questioning. On awakening, he does not speak, but he acts, taking Mary into his home without further ado. Through their fiat … their consent … Mary and Joseph demonstrate the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Their example is also a gift for all of us. Imagine if either one of them said “no.” If that had been the case, tonight’s celebration would be quite different. And as Saint Matthew reminds us, “All this took place to fulfill the words of Isaiah.” Jesus is the ‘Emmanuel’ of the prophet.” God IS and WILL INDEED be with us.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s faith in “I Heard the Bells” is expressed today in the words of the song and back in when it was written, inspired his compatriots. Outside the religious holidays of Christmas and Easter … today some Christians have a hard time believing the other 363 days of the year. Between the song and the Gospel, Christians should be able to see that as the Season of Advent comes to its close, the weeks of waiting and praying are replaced with great joy and peace. People of all ages and nations raise their voices to sing praises and glories to the Lord. We once again receive the world’s greatest gift. As we continue with the celebration of the Holy Mass, let us never forget why Jesus came into the world. It was out of love. It was to save His people from their sins. It was to save you … it was to save me … it was to save all of us. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep … The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail … with peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Merry Christmas.

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