HOMILY for 23 December
We saw on Saturday how the story of God and Man is essentially a love song, in which God comes in search of his Beloved, wooing humanity with passionate words, and finally with the eternal Word himself who is God’s love for Man made incarnate and visible. But the image of God as the Lover of humanity, the Bridegroom of the soul, is matched by another Scriptural image today: that of the covenant.
For Malachi prophesies in the name of God, the Lord of hosts, that “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight… is coming” (Mal 3:1). In other translations, the Greek form for messenger is used, so the “angel of the covenant” is coming. And the messenger, this angel, is understood to be Jesus Christ who bears in his own person and body the message of God’s covenant with humanity.
From the days of Adam, God has desired kinship with Man, and so he entered into a covenant with him. It would be a mistake to think of a covenant as a contract. For contracts exchange goods and property but covenants exchange persons; they establish a family bond. So, God becomes Father to Adam, and then, to Abraham and his descendants, and then, to Moses, and latterly to David and his house – as we have been recalling this past week. In each case, the covenant is renewed, and God promises that Israel will be his people and he will be their God (cf Eze 36:28). So, there is this exchange of persons, and the creation of kinship between God and the descendants of Israel.
But in Christ, the Second Adam, who is both God and Man, that kinship is perfected because it now encompasses not just one people but all of humankind for all time. So, because of Christ, all peoples can enter into a “new and eternal covenant” with God, and truly become members of God’s family. But there is an exchange of persons in a covenant, so it is not just that God receives our humanity through Christ, but also that we receive his divinity. And this is given to us in the Eucharist. Hence, Jesus says: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant” (cf Lk 22:20), for the Eucharist creates and renews our covenant with God, and we are made “one body, one spirit in Christ”. Through the grace of Christ, the Son, we have become truly God’s kin, indeed, his adopted sons and daughters.
Our kinship with God comes entirely through grace; it is God’s initiative and gift. It is not a birthright, not something passed on by blood or family lineage, but received through faith, which is God’s gift, and given through God’s grace. Today’s Gospel alludes to this. For the neighbours and kinsfolk have gathered for the naming of the baby, and when they hear that he’s to be called ‘John’, they say: “None of your kindred are called by this name” (Lk 1:61). They want something traditional, something handed down. But the fact that a new name is given stresses that something new is taking place, and it is God’s gracious initiative. The miraculous conception of the child already told us this, but the name that the baby is given underlines this fact. For the name ‘John’ means, “God has been gracious”. So, the naming of John stresses God’s initiative, God’s grace and gift, and Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faith in what God accomplishes by his grace. They no longer rely on earthly familial or tribal bonds to maintain a covenantal relationship with God but on his grace, which comes to all peoples through the messenger of the covenant, Jesus Christ.
It is this extension of God’s covenant with Man to all nations, to you and me, that we will celebrate tomorrow night. The saintly Benedictine abbot Ansgar Vonier wrote that “covenant is an alliance between God and man; it is a peace concluded between divine Justice and the sinner; it is a friendship between the Creator and His creature”. And it is this alliance, this peace, this friendship with God that Jesus accomplished for all Mankind when he was born as one of us; when God became one with us.