Father Walter’s Christmas Message
The Dawn From On High
On the days leading up to Christmas, we celebrate an early morning Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer. Such celebrations have acquired the Spanish nickname, “Misa de Gallo,” the “rooster’s mass.” On each of these mornings, I leave St. Catherine’s about 5:15 AM when the city still slumbers in darkness. This morning, (December 23), it was time to return home at about 6:45 AM. I let myself out of the side door of St. Vincent’s, turned right onto 66th street, and walked directly into the dawn. Luminous pinks and grays covered the eastern sky, shedding a soft light on every surface they reached, and finding extra richness wherever they struck a glass curtain wall. Aurora came gently to the UES, but also insistently. Her rays positively surged through the canyons, casting otherwise monumental buildings into deep shade.
Dawn gladdens my heart at any time: I am a morning person and glad to see it. But after the longest night of the year its arrival announced triumph with quiet assurance, and I was wordlessly elated. Needless to say, the 7 AM crowd at St. Catherine’s got a very different homily than the group at six.
In the light of dawn I do not see the sun, but I know it will follow and bring the golden light of full morning. Integral to early morning beauty is the hope it holds for the brightness of the day, for the unfolding of its pursuits, and for the surprises it may yield.
When I ponder the mystery Christ’s birth I find dawn’s particular wonder. Infancy represents the dawn of human life, and crib-dwellers fascinate us because of the potential they are about to disclose. Babies lie swaddled in possibility and we wait happily to hear from them. So it would be normal enough for us to wait for Jesus to grow up and deliver his message. Ministry usually comes down to words after all.
But perhaps with Jesus, infancy is the message, as much a statement about us as about him. Wordlessly, the Infant Christ discloses that we are infants with him in God’s sight. Ponder it: from the perspective of eternity is not the whole of human life an infancy? Whether it lasts 30 years or a hundred it remains a dawn to the eternal day. To say God sees us as infants takes nothing from our intellect, prowess, or discipline, but reveals that dawn’s potential abides in us at every age. We are people of the first light, not just to see by, but act in. By dawn’s light we delight in Jesus at every stage of his human progress. When adulthood brings forth his words and actions they bear the mark of morning’s expectancy, not twilight’s fatigue or wistfulness. He sees all in light of what God will do in the new day.
He has come, that his way of seeing might be ours. I try to imagine living my entire life on the basis that my best days lay ahead. I would have a forward gaze with a focus that nostalgia, regret, and resentment could not break. I would have an unshakeable confidence that my sin and weakness do not stymie God’s power. My capacity for trust would equal my delight, my surroundings and my companions. To my dying day I would never lose the capacity to start over.
Sounds like the stuff of a Christmas movie! But, look it, people of the dawn surround Jesus. John the Baptist, Joseph, and Mary know the worst of human life but they draw on an inexhaustible spring of belief, and they live expansively all their earthly days. A legion of saints has followed them down to the present day. They confirm that the wordless message of the infant in the manger applies at every stage of life, in every time and place. The light of dawn tells the truth about us and illumines the most fruitful pattern of human living.
As I write these lines I see the first streaks of dawn spread across our times, as vaccines emerge from laboratories to bring hope. But actually, dawn has been breaking around me for months. How much dawn vision kept people on the manufacture and testing of those medicines? Did not that same gentle light draw medical people back to yet another long shift serving the sick? All kinds of business people followed those gentle rays to new patterns of work and connection.
Of course I live and work with believers in the “Dawn From On High” who has broken upon us. Faith in Jesus took on new meaning for Friars, Sisters, and Staff who found new ways to share its riches. By dawn’s light, too, people recognized what was on offer and received it gratefully. Looking back over the last nine months I perceive that Christians, like their Lord, stand readily in the light of the beginning, trusting in the Him who is the completion.
At the end of my journey I turned from First Avenue on to 68th Street and the glass hospital towers where we live became mirrors of morning’s arrival.
May you recognize the dawn in this Christmas, and may the day overtake us all in 2021.