The Nativity of the Lord (Mass@Night)
Picture: cc Bureau of Land Management
Sisters and brothers, have you ever seen the stars twinkling in the night sky? I mean really seen them in their full glory? The first time I saw it I was abroad. In a remote place. Out in the countryside somewhere. Night had fallen. And I remember looking up, and having my breath snatched away from me by the awesome sight. The whole of the night sky was carpeted with stars. Some larger. Some smaller. But all shining brightly like a mass of lighted lamps hanging from a huge ceiling. So many of them! An incredible sight!
After I got over my amazement, I began to wonder to myself why the night sky looked so different back in Singapore. Why did there seem to be so many more stars here than back home? Didn’t we live under the same sky? Shouldn’t it contain the same stars? Why then did I not see such an amazing sight when I looked up at the night sky in Singapore? My dear friends, I’m sure you already know the answer. I found out only later.
Apparently it has to do with artificial light. Singapore is a city. An urban area. Which is usually very brightly lit at night. And all that artificial light actually makes it difficult to see the starlight. In contrast, rural areas, like that place where I was, are usually much more dimly lit. So the stars are more easily seen. I imagine it’s sort of like how it’s easier to read from the screen on your smartphone when the surroundings are dark than in broad daylight. The glare of artificial light makes it more difficult to see the brilliance of starlight.
And perhaps this truth can help us to better understand what is happening in the gospel tonight. As we begin to celebrate Christ’s coming among us at Christmas, our prayers and readings describe His advent as a burst of light. In the opening prayer, we said that God has made this most sacred night radiant with the splendour of the true light. And, in the first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of how the people who walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.
On those who live under the gloom of tyranny and oppression. On those who suffer the pain of conflict and division. Of loneliness and disconnection. Of aimlessness and the lack of direction. The light of Christ’s love shines tenderly. Bringing justice and integrity to all. And a peace that knows no end. With the dawning of the light of Christ, God makes their gladness greater, and their joy increase. This is the prophet’s promise.
And yet, when this promise is finally fulfilled on that very first Christmas night, something very curious happens. When the light of Christ finally dawns upon the world, not everyone notices it. Not everyone is able to see it. The gospel reading presents us with a sharp contrast between two different groups of people. Living in two different locations.
When Mary and Joseph go looking for a place to have their baby, they first try their luck in the town of Bethlehem. But there is no room for them at the inn. Apparently, when the glory of God shines in the town, none of its people realises what is happening. The promised Saviour has come among them, and they simply ignore him. They continue to go about their usual business without interruption.
In contrast, it is the shepherds living in the fields. In the countryside. Who see and welcome the Light. Like the people of Bethlehem, they too are going about their usual business. But, unlike the townsfolk, when the glory of the Lord shines round them, they take notice. They pay attention. They’re willing even to break their routine. To stop what they’re doing. And to visit the newborn Saviour. As a result, their hearts are filled with joy.
What do you think accounts for the contrast? Why the difference between the townsfolk and the country-shepherds? Why is one group so attentive to the Light? And the other so indifferent? I’m not sure, my dear friends, but perhaps it’s the same reason why we see more stars in the country than in the city. Perhaps it has to do with the presence of artificial light. When you live in town, there are so many other lights competing for your attention. Lights that seem too impressive to refuse. Skyscrapers and shopping malls. Designer goods and high tech gadgets. Lights that dazzle and distract you from the gentle glow of Christ. Of a God who chooses to come among us as a helpless, innocent baby. Lying on a bed of straw. A scene of stark simplicity. Making it difficult for us to rest our eyes on it without being tempted to jazz it up a bit. As with the twinkling of the stars. So too with the coming of Christ. The harsh glare of artificial light makes it difficult to see.
What then does this mean for us, my dear friends? We who live in this ultra-modern metropolis of Singapore. Surrounded by bright lights of so many different shapes and sizes. Does this mean that, in order for us to receive and to welcome the Light of Christ, we all have to relocate to the countryside? Move to a remote jungle in some foreign land? Where the artificial light is less glaring? I imagine that few of us actually have the luxury, or the inclination, of doing that. What then can we to do to better receive and welcome the Light of Christ?
To find an solution to our predicament, it may be helpful to remember something else about starlight. It may be helpful to remember that, even in the city, it is still possible to see the stars. The sight may not be as dramatic as in the countryside. Nor the lights so many or so bright. But the stars are still there to be seen. We just have to look a little longer. To focus a little harder.
And perhaps the same can be said about seeing Christ. The key lies not so much in a change of location. But in a shifting of attention. Away from the dazzling but temporary. To the gentle yet enduring. Away from the sophisticated but superficial. To the simple yet profound. As simple and profound as a poor defenceless baby. Inviting you to carry it lovingly. To caress it tenderly. To commit your life to it generously and courageously.
Isn’t this what the second reading tells us to do? God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race. For city-dwellers like us, as much as for countryfolk elsewhere. What we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions. We need to shift our attention away from merely artificial light. So as to let Christ be our One True Light. We must be self-restrained and live good religious lives here in this present world. Here in this brightly-lit city that we call our home.
As with starlight so too with Christ-Light. We see more clearly, the more we turn from the artificial to the authentic. The superficial to the deeply enduring. This is what it takes to welcome Christ this Christmas. Into our hearts. Into our homes. Into lives…
My dear friends, what will you be doing to keep on stargazing? How will you be shifting your attention this Christmas?