Emmanuel, God-With-Us
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
December 26, 2018

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the evening’s readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-14.

Welcome, welcome! Welcome to our regular parishioners, welcome to those who are back in town for the holidays, welcome to those traveling, and an especially warm welcome to those who have joined us at the request of other family members. You all help make this celebration all that it is meant to be, as evidenced by those who gathered in the stable during the first Christmas – humble Jewish shepherds and magnificent Persian astrologers. Once again, welcome!

But of course, tonight, we welcome someone else into our presence. Tonight, we celebrate that God has come among us. This is the same God who walked with us in the cool of evening in the garden of Eden, the God born in a stable in the Middle East, the God present tonight in this very room, the God who is always God-with-us. Let us take a moment to celebrate that!

Before I became a priest, I was an optical engineer. I studied the creation, propagation, and detection of light, working with lasers, holograms, precision lenses and mirrors, LEDs, and fiberoptics. But most people don’t understand that. When I tell people that I used to be an optical engineer, the first question they invariably ask is, “Did you work at LensCrafters?”  

Once, when I was in college, I asked my friend Marie, a music major, to deliver something to me in the optics lab. I explained to her where the lab was located on campus. That next evening, when I saw her, I asked, “Why didn’t you stop by?” She said, “I went to the labs, as you said, but when I got there, all the doors were closed and the lights were off.” I responded, “Well, duh, we were inside, working!” When I was creating holograms in the lab, I worked by the light of a single low-power laser.  

Often, when we face tragedies in our lives, things don’t make sense to us. Sometimes, well-meaning people try to soothe us by saying, “everything happens for a reason.” I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. God has given us free will, which means that there are things that happen in the world that are outside of God’s plan.

But, through faith, we can find meaning in the tragedies of life. When we live in darkness, we adjust to our surroundings. We can more readily notice the small glimmers of light around us. We can see so much by the light of a single candle!

If we have patience in the darkness, we can find beauty. For example, the more time you take in lining up the optical elements in making a hologram, the deeper and richer the image becomes. I gained some notoriety around the optics lab for producing a beautiful hologram that was used for years during tours for prospective students. It turned out so beautifully because I exhibited extraordinary care during my time in the darkness. It took a long time to get everything just right, but the results were worth the wait!

Pope Francis seems to understand this search, this pateince required, to find meaning. Five years ago, he wrote his first apostolic exhortation, called Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel.” Joy? If Francis is talking about joy, can he be talking to those of us experiencing great sadness? Yes. He spends time in his exhortation addressing us. He writes, “I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light.” 

I think of Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas night. A scandalous, out-of-wedlock pregnancy. People weren’t shopping at the malls, of course, but it sounds as if everyone was on the move for this ill-planned government census. The traffic was apparently so bad on the way to Bethlehem that all the hotel rooms were booked by the time Mary and Joseph got to town.  

Mary and Joseph were saints, but they were human. What did they think of their circumstances? They probably felt as if they were starting their life of parenting as complete failures. Yet, there was a flicker of joy, that flicker of light amid the squallor and the chaos of that first Christmas. What was the source of that light? A baby born in a barn, sleeping in a trough used for animal slop.  

And that baby is also our source of light, our flicker of joy. God so wanted to show us that he loved us, God so wanted to show us that he understood that life was complicated, God so wanted to show us that he was present even in circumstances far from ideal, that he chose to walk among us as a human being. We call Jesus Christ “Emmanuel,” which means God is with us. Even when we walk in the valley of darkness, there is a flicker of light.

Pope Francis puts it in slightly different words in Evangelii Gaudium. He says, “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light, born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”  

So, no matter the pain we feel, no matter the losses we experience, we are not alone. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We are infinitely loved. God is with us.