Hello everyone, and Merry Christmas. Thank you for joining me today to reflect on the incarnation of Christ and all the mystery contained therein.
This year’s Christmas gospel is the prologue to the Gospel of John. It’s the last gospel to have been written, and the most Christologically sophisticated. Its beginning echoes the opening words of Genesis: in the beginning. As I tell my students, this demonstrates the conclusion that the earliest christians were coming to: that Jesus was not only special from the moment he began his ministry, as Mark suggests, or from the moment of his conception and birth, as Matthew and Luke suggest, but from the beginning of time itself. Jesus is the eternal God, the author of John tells us. But he is also a baby. He is a powerful king, the savior of the world, but also a vulnerable newborn. God is both at once. God can contain vulnerability and power. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
All of today’s readings point to the conundrum that is the incarnation: the word is also flesh, eternity enters history in the form of Christ, a newborn child–humanity at its most fragile. The ruined city of Jerusalem is instructed to sing out for joy. The crucified Jesus is the heir to God’s eternal kingdom. I can think of a lot of theological words for this: the dialectic of salvation, the paschal mystery, the scandal of the incarnation. But it fundamentally does not make sense. How? How can someone who comes after John, who follows, take precedence over him, lead? How can a ruined city shout for joy? How can a word also be embodied?
Though it seems irrational, if we reflect on it, we see examples of this irrationality throughout our lives, maybe especially at the holidays. After all, why would there be so many melancholy Christmas songs if the holidays were only for joy and cheer? What would Joni Mitchell have done with her River? How could Judy Garland have herself a merry little christmas if she wasn’t living in the hopes that next year all our troubles would be miles away?
Just over a week ago, I watched a viral video of the funeral of Shane McGowan that took place in a church in Tipperary in Ireland. I never listened to McGowan’s band, the Pogues, and to be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of Irish music–my preference is for salsa and pop. Nevertheless, as a Catholic I’m a sucker for a funeral liturgy and this one absolutely blew me away. After communion, a huge group of musicians–at least 8 playing traditional instruments plus a few vocalists, were in the front of the church, behind the casket, singing what can only be described as a raucous rendition of one of McGowan’s most famous tunes, Fairytale of New York. It is…not a liturgically appropriate song. It begins in “the drunk tank” on Christmas Eve. The lyrics are horridly irreverent, like the man they were memorializing that evening. But none of this is what got me.
About three quarters of the way through the song, the camera pans to the nave of the church. And there’s a woman jumping a pew–jumping. a. pew–to get to the aisle and join several couples who were joyously dancing along to the music. Right in front of the simple wicker casket covered in flowers. I still get emotional just thinking about it: the beauty of a moment of such profound mourning spilling over into music and big enough to contain all the emotions in that church including, maybe especially, joy. That the congregation, filled with famous people and rich people and normal everyday people, made room for ebullience, and that the liturgy could hold it.
There is a lesson here for us to imitate. In the incarnation, God, too, makes room. God is determined to make room. Room for light in the darkness. Room for joy in our sadness. Room for triumph in our defeats. Room for peace in our broken, war-torn world. God is determined to make space among the ruins for celebration, to make possible within our vulnerability a sense of safety. God is determined to make room in the darkness that surrounds us for an inextinguishable light.
How are we being called to make room in our lives? For forgiveness of ourselves or others? For peace amid our anxious thoughts? For justice for the most excluded among us? Are we determined like God to make room for good in this world filled with suffering?
Are we willing to hop a pew and dance in the aisle for it?
Here’s hoping that the bravery of Mary, and the joyous audacity of that dancer, inspires us to make room this Christmas.
Natalia Imperatori-Lee is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY, where she also coordinates the Catholic Studies program. She is the author, most recently, of Women and the Church: From Devil’s Gateway to Disciples (Paulist Press, 2024), and of Cuéntame: Narrative in the Ecclesial Present (Orbis Books, 2018). Her work focuses on the intersection of Latinx theologies, feminist theologies, and Catholic ecclesiology. She has published in Theological Studies and The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. A native of Miami, Florida, Imperatori-Lee has served on the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the US. She is a frequent commentator in media on matters pertaining to the church, women, LGBTQ+ issues, and more. At Manhattan College, Dr. Imperatori-Lee teaches courses on contemporary Catholicism, including Vatican II, as well as courses like Sexuality and the Sacred and Women in Western Religion.
Dr. Imperatori-Lee speaks regularly at parishes, universities, and in other venues about feminism, faith, and the Latinx communities in the United States. Her writing has appeared in Commonweal and America magazines, and has appeared as a guest expert on Pope Francis on CNN and MSNBC. She lives in the Bronx with her spouse and children.
The second of three volumes from the Catholic Women Preach project of FutureChurch offers homilies for each Sunday and holy days of the liturgical year by Catholic women from around the world. The first volume for Cycle A received awards for best book on Liturgy from both the Association of Catholic Publishers and the Catholic Media Association.
“Catholic Women Preach is one of the more inspiring collection of homilies available today. Based on the deep spirituality and insights of the various women authors, the homilies are solidly based on the scriptures and offer refreshing and engaging insights for homilists and listeners. The feminine perspective has long been absent in the preached word, and its inclusion in this work offers a long overdue and pastorally necessary resource for the liturgical life of the Church.” - Catholic Media Association
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