Solemn Chapter of the Nativity

Sr. Mary Catharine’s Solemn Chapter Sermon:

My Dear Sisters,

This Advent I have been reflecting a lot on light. Most likely, this is because of our building which is nearing completion. Light has been a constant theme from the beginning of our project. Not any light, but THE LIGHT, the WORD, God from God, light from light whose birth in time we celebrate tonight.

The foundational purpose of our new building was to “let the Light shine brighter” and isn’t that our reaction when we take our Sunday recreation promenade through the new building. “It’s so bright!” “There is so much light!” As nice as it is to have a light-filled, bright building, what we hope for even more is that our monastery set on this hill, our way of belonging to the Lord, our communio, will radiate the light of Christ to all who come here, to those who drive by, and even to those who visit us virtually.

I have always been fascinated by the place of light in the feast of Christmas! The text for the Masses of Christmas are filled with this image of light! “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.”[1] “Today a light will shine upon us.”[2] This light is not like the single ray of light that pierces the darkness from the candle on Holy Saturday night as we sing “Lumen Christi” Rather, it is the brightness of the Morning Sun, the “Life that is the light of men”. The light that is not OF Christ but rather the light who IS Christ, the Word whose life itself is THE light.

Because of our ability to flip a switch for light, to traverse time zones, and have the convenience of 24/7 we do not have much sense of the significance of the birth of Jesus as a recapitulation of the First Day of Creation. “Let there be light…and God saw that the light was good; and God separated light from darkness.”[3] Yet, we have this almost innate sense that the night, that darkness is not good, that it is to be feared because perhaps, just perhaps, despite God’s insistence that the “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”[4]— that the darkness will win out. And so, at night we pull our covers over our heads, close our eyes and the mercy of sleep protects us from our fear. But weren’t we just exhorted this past Friday: “Do not be afraid! On the fifth day our Lord will come to you!”

The experts say that this night was chosen for the feast of Christmas because it was the pagan feast of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. I don’t know, because, as they say, I wasn’t there. But because we believe that the birth of a tiny, helpless infant is the “eternal Sun who fills all created things with light”[5] and that he has given us a share in His divine life we cannot but want to celebrate. Every morning for the past 3 weeks we have proclaimed to a seemingly dark world, “Your light will come! The Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty!”[6] and our own hearts have been expanded by this desire.  In defiance of the darkness we string lights on our trees, on the cappa closets, in the stairwells and in the refectory—just about anywhere we can string lights —proclaiming a greater truth: that this First Coming of our Savior is the prelude to His 2nd Coming and of the new Jerusalem where God’s glory with be the endless day of joy.

Thanks to St. Francis we put the creche in nearly every room of our monastery and the shepherds remind us that they really did find a baby lying in a manger. We stand before the scene contemplating the littleness of God and we are made silent because for the past three weeks we have been asking God to “stir up his mighty power”[7] and he answers us, beguiling our hearts with the paradox of his helplessness.

The preparation for the feast of Christmas is intensely filled with expectation, as it should be for the birth of a child. But it is something more because Christ lives in us through his gift of grace. The Divine Word has made his dwelling with us. He has sent his Spirit so that we can be a new manger, a new home for the Word, not just during the very short Christmas season but each day of our lives. So, what are we longing for?

There is a verse of a hymn we have been singing during Advent whose words will be familiar, which, for me, expresses so exquisitely this longing. I’m sure at least a few of us can even give the number in the Choirbook:

O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ our king in beauty comes
And we His face shall see.[8]

Ultimately, isn’t this the deepest longing of our hearts: to see God face to face, to be filled with His infinite and radiant love. The birth of the Word made Man is the beginning of this promise and since we live in time and not yet in eternity, each year we are once again given the opportunity to receive “the first payment” of this promise more fully and to renew the longing of our hearts for “the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ…”[9]

Tonight, at I Vespers of Christmas we will sing, “He comes in splendor, the King who is our peace; the whole world longs to see him.”[10] We hold in our hearts the suffering of this longing world as we contemplate with joy our Jesus born for us taking our place besides our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. During these days of joy may we radiant Christ’s light and peace to each other and may we never stop singing, “Come Lord, and do not delay. You have vanquished the darkness of the world by your Light! In your light we see light! O Radiant Dawn, O Prince of Peace, come!”

 Merry Christmas!

 [1] Isaiah 9:1

[2] Entrance Antiphon, Christmas Mass at Dawn

[3] Genesis 1:3-4

[4] John 1:5

[5] Anselmo Lentini, +1989, Hymn for Vespers, Common of Doctors of the Church

[6] Short Responsory for Lauds during Advent

[7] Many of the Collects during Advent begin with this invocation.

[8] Summit Choirbook, page 14. John Brownlie, Hymns from the East, 1907

[9] Titus 2:13

[10] Antiphon of the first psalm of I Vespers of Christmas

Our Christmas Liturgy Schedule is as follows:

  • I Vespers of Christmas         5:30 PM

  • Matins of Christmas           11:10 PM

  • Midnight Mass                    12:00 AM

  • Lauds                                       6:40 AM

  • Mass at Dawn                        8:00 AM

  • Sext                                         12:00 PM

  • None                                          1:55 PM

  • Rosary & II Vespers               5:20 PM

Compline is not open to the public. Chapel doors close at 7:00 PM