Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Homily for Midnight Mass

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The first thing we hear is that all of this takes place in the middle of the night. The shepherds are keeping watch, guarding their flock when the Good News is revealed to them by the angelic chorus that breaks the silence and the darkness of the night. What happens changes their perspective of the night, of darkness. Understandably, their attention is on all the dangers that lurk in the darkness of night: the attack of wild animals that can endanger and scatter the sheep, the chaos provoked by sudden storms or thieves who scheme to plunder their flock.

They also know another kind of social darkness in dealing with the great Roman empire, which forces them to live in the shadow of powers that have so much control over their livelihood, economy and security. But this night is different, for they are drawn to see that there is something else happening in the night, in the darkness. The darkness is where God is at work to save his people, a light in the darkness shines this night.

We gather this midnight, only too aware that there is a great deal of darkness and uncertainty in our world. There are dangers lurking in the shadows of night: the threats of violence in our streets, the menacing forces of terrorism that grip our collective hearts in fear. And, there are many hidden powers that hold sway over our lives and create an inequality in our local and world-wide communities, which too often leave us divided. But, like the shepherds we are called to believe that there is more to the darkness. God is at work in this darkness, walking with us, for the one who is born this night is Emmanuel, a name that means God-with-us.

The darkness found in the world can challenge our faith, can divide us and paralyze us in fear. We know all too well how some even exploit those fears and sow division for their own gain. The shepherds call us to another approach as we deal with the darkness in the world. They urge us to believe that we are not left to ourselves in the darkness, abandoned to fend for ourselves, or worse yet that the darkness forces us to be enemies, competitors to overcome. No, the darkness does not have to do that because God is in the darkness with us, for God is Emmanuel.

The shepherd’s message was echoed centuries later by St. John of the Cross. A passage I often return to comes to mind. He once wrote: “When you are in darkness and cannot see anything or find a way out, then the only thing you can do is to put your hand into the hand of someone who can see and who can lead you out into the light.”

Confident that God is working on this dark night, the shepherds are emboldened to say to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

What are they going to see? The newborn child, born in a manger, in an animal’s feedbox and wrapped swaddling clothes, clothed in rags. They are not daunted by the neediness of this refugee child and his family. Sometimes we find ourselves falling into the temptation that God is not with the needy, with those whom we have a tough time being with or whom we easily judge as beyond God’s care and love, because they do not measure up to our standards. The shepherds are testing our faith to believe that God is first with those the world considers marginal, beyond help, sinners, the disposable, the losers.

Maybe the shepherds found it easy to receive this message that God is with the forgotten and powerless, because they were themselves among that class. But, then does that not force us to see that in the end we are all beggars, all of us are powerless, helpless when left to ourselves, mortal, weak, sinful human beings? The shepherds call us to a humble reality check about our lives before we too easily dismiss anyone as unimportant or a loser.

There is one final thing we learn from the shepherds as they go to the Bethlehem stable. Notice that they tell the Holy Family what was revealed to them by the angelic hosts. Everyone is amazed, with Mary treasuring everything in her heart.

The shepherds remind us that our faith is not just for ourselves, to give us courage, but it is an example, is a gift that should enrich others, the community, the church, which like Mary considers each of our lives a treasure.

In calling the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis is urging us to take seriously the impact we can have on one another by our example, our witness of how God is working in the darkness, especially through our outreach to those who are most in need. During this year, I am encouraging both individuals and families to choose one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy, and make it your own in practice.

It will be by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, bearing wrongs patiently, comforting the afflicted and praying for the dead and all the other works of mercy that you will make each day hereafter a celebration of Christmas that is true to what the shepherds teach us.

The shepherds on that first Christmas night set the standard for us as we celebrate Christ’s birth. They embolden us not to let the darkness and the uncertainty of the world leave us afraid and divided, for God is at work as Emmanuel. They urge us to acknowledge our own poverty and neediness, and let that truth guide us in reaching out to all in need. And they remind us of the power of our witness so that we can go forth and encourage others to believe by our example. And so, like they did for Mary, let us give them a gift they can treasure in their hearts.

Merry Christmas to you all.