The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Homily: Christmas Day

Readings: Is 52:7-10; Ps 98; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18

I can’t speak for you, but I find it hard to ignore the commercial side of Christmas, that part of Christmas our secular and materialistic culture wants us to focus on. Wrapped up in all the shopping and decorating and diners and parties, it's easy to forget why the Magi carried those original Christmas gifts to a newborn baby lying in a manger. Believe it or not, the true message of Christmas is not an order confirmation email from Amazon.com.

No, the true message of Christmas is the message we just heard, the message revealed to us in John’s Gospel: The creative Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us as the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. It’s the Archangel Gabriel’s message to Mary, when he said, "You shall name him Jesus and he shall be called Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us" and he “will be called holy, the Son of God.” It’s the message of a passionate God, the message of a God whose love for us is overpowering.

This is what we celebrate today: God’s fierce zeal for us, His commitment not to abandon us; for God is unwilling to leave us in the darkness of our own sinfulness, our own personal tyrannies. What we have in Christmas is a terrible desire on God's part to "be with us," to be part of the human condition: God with us in our entirety.

The Christmas message is that God simply won’t let us alone. God, the most passionate of Lovers, wants to be Emmanuel. And it’s this remarkable action on God’s part, this Divine decision to become one of us, that so many people find so troubling, so hard to accept.

Some years ago, in a diocesan newspaper up north, I read a story – I believe it was called a “Christmas Parable” – about a man who had come to the Church all the way from disbelief. I can’t recall all the details, but I’ll share what I recall.

The man was a good guy, a compassionate and caring husband and father, well liked by those who knew him. He just didn’t believe. His disbelief was simple. Deep inside, he couldn’t understand how this God of the Christians, this Creator of all that is, could allow Himself to become a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. What was the point of it all? Why would this all-powerful God become one of us? Why would this Creator of all that is do something so demeaning, so nonsensical? Christmas, the Incarnation, none of it made any sense to him. It all seemed pretty foolish.

One wintry Sunday, a few days before Christmas, he’d just returned home from taking his wife and children to church. He’d pick them up later when Mass was over. He sat at the front window of their home, enjoying the view of his property – several acres of rural countryside, snow capped trees, an ice-covered pond, the old barn he’d recently restored.

That’s when he noticed a small flock of birds flying in circles around his barn. They’d scatter, then land near the pond, and then a moment later take off again, only to circle the barn once more. They kept repeating this odd behavior as if they were looking for a safe place to hide from the wind and snow and freezing temperatures.

Eventually he threw on his coat, ran to the barn, flung open the big doors and tried to coax the birds into the barn. He waved his arms, ran back and forth between them and the barn…he tried everything, but the birds simply didn’t understand. He could almost see the wind and cold pressing down on them. “Stupid, damn birds,” he muttered to himself. “They’re afraid of me. If only I were a bird, they’d understand, and I could lead them to safety.”

And that’s when God’s grace entered his heart; for it was then that he suddenly understood why God had to become man. It was then he understood the love of the Father, Who sent His only Son to be one of us – a Son Who would guide us to the warm safety of His Father’s Heavenly Home. God became man to turn to us a human face, to speak words of comfort and reconciliation, words that we can understand. It’s this gentle birth we celebrate today, this gentle birth that heralds out salvation.

A few weeks ago at the soup kitchen, I sat down next to a mother holding her little baby girl in her lap. The baby’s name was Heather. As I sat down, Heather saw my smile and reached out her little arms to me. Naturally I picked her up and she just snuggled right up against me and buried her little head into my chest and her arms clasped over my shoulders.

My first thought was that, “Here’s a little baby that needed some hugging.” And then I realized how wrong I was. Heather had been perfectly happy being held by her mom, with whom I could never hope to compete. No she didn’t need my hugs. But she knew that I sure needed hers.

You see, brothers and sisters, in a very real way, little Heather is the meaning of Christmas. God with us. God with Heather. For that brief moment Heather is God’s love. Heather is Christmas. Heather is God's arms, God’s zeal, God’s passion for each of us.

God loves us despite our foolishness. He loves us with our broken lives, our selfishness, our tattered relationships, our foolish sins. God is two tiny arms determined to break into our lives.  God is a fierce little baby who makes no distinctions but embraces the least likely along with most likely.

This is what the feast of Christmas is about -- an enormously unrelenting love feast. Not a soft sentimental love, but a love as searing as any passionate romance. Christmas is God's fulfilled desire to be with us. This is what and why we celebrate.

For if God is not Emmanuel, if God is not with us, if God has not embraced our tattered lives, then woe to us. If God isn’t with us, there’s no hope, no light, only darkness and despair. And if that’s the case, we’re here tonight out of fruitless hope, or habit, or empty sentimentality.

But if we’re here out of love, if we’re here like ragtag shepherds to kneel and rejoice and let God take us in His arms, then we’ve caught the meaning of Christmas: Emmanuel, the passionate God, has had his way and has hugged us fiercely.

Brothers and sisters, when the wintry blasts of sin, suffering and death scatter our souls far and wide like those birds outside that barn, that’s when we need God the most. And that’s when Jesus comes to us to guide us to His Father’s loving arms.

There’s really nothing more to say this Christmas morning…except to wish each and every one of you, and all your loved ones near and far, a blessed and peaceful Christmas




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