On Christmas Eve after Mass the community gathers in the Chapter Hall for Solemn Chapter. Solemn Chapter takes place twice a year: on the vigil of the Solemnity of the Annunciation and on the vigil of Christmas. The Christmas Chapter begins with the chantress (this year Sr. Denise Marie) singing the beautiful Christmas martyrology announcing the birth of Christ. Then, the Sisters make the venia (prostration) asking God pardon for our sins. The ceremony concludes with a sermon by the Prioress or another Sister appointed by her. Following is Sr. Mary Martin's Christmas Chapter Sermon.
What a beautiful picture this carol presents! One easily thinks of a peaceful village with lights twinkling in the darkness like the lights on the Christmas tree in a darkened room. The truth of the matter is that, since there was no electricity in Bethlehem, the village was probably as dark as the hovels of the poor that Fr. Carlos described, which one could enter and not see anything or anyone until one lit a candle or lantern. Then, in the circle of light, people could be discerned sitting all around the room. Or, perhaps, since there were many caravans of people coming to register and the inn was crowded to the doors, Bethlehem was not dark or peaceful at all. Maybe it seethed with noise and confusion and the Babel of voices that I experienced in two different airports a week ago.
But one line of the carol is certainly true: the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. All the hopes of all the men and women of all the ages are embodied in a tiny, newborn babe, cradled by his mother and her husband, and surrounded by shepherds who are breathless with awe. All the hopes – the hope for love, for beauty, for peace, for security, for forgiveness, for life itself – are focused on this baby, who alone can fulfill them. And all the fears – the fear of loss, the fear of failure, the fear of ugliness, the fear of illness and bodily injury, the fear of death itself – are also focused on this baby, who will in due time undergo all of them for our sakes.
What about our hopes and fears? Are they met in Christ tonight? Or are they met in our own hearts? Our own hopes and fears struggle within us constantly. We grasp frantically at life as death comes daily nearer; we focus on our small successes as the specter of some all-encompassing failure looms over us; we snatch at small moments of beauty in a world that seems consistently drab and dull; we yearn for peace in the midst of constant turmoil. Tonight and tomorrow, Christ invites us to go beyond ourselves, once and for all, to set out sights on him, not on ourselves, to consider not what we might be or do or suffer, but who he is and what he has suffered and done. He asks us to let go of our fears and to accept generously whatever may befall us, knowing that he has already gone there ahead of us. Our hopes for life, peace, beauty, security, forgiveness are all fulfilled in him, not in ourselves, in the world he will bring us to by himself entering the world which we inhabit.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! In that stillness, in the manger, lies the one great hope that encompasses and transcends the entire universe. Let us enter into that hope and, for tonight if not for all our lives, let us leave all our fears behind.