Last night (as people often do on Christmas Eve), I was recalling memories of Christmases past – memories of big family gatherings and gifts given and received, and cherished people and places, “the wonderful things we’ll remember the rest of our lives,” as the familiar song says. And, today, people everywhere (including, I’m sure, many here in this church, this Christmas morning) will also be visiting relatives and friends and giving gifts and receiving presents in return. Perhaps, some of those visits will not be as wonderful as we would wish – whether for the visitors or for those being visited. Certainly, not all gifts will be appreciated. Some will be rapidly returned to the store in search of something better, bigger, or brighter. In spite of all that, Christmas is still special. It is, as Charles Dickens described it: “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time on the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
Of course, not everyone will have a place to go or will be getting gifts. For some, this is a day to feel even more lonely or more poor than usual. We all know how difficult opening those “shut-up hearts” of ours can be at times. Hence the permanent appeal of every Christmas story that confirms for us the power of Christmas to do just that – whether for Ebenezer Scrooge in Victorian London, or Mrs. Hamilton in 1940s New York in the Christmas movie The Bishop’s Wife, or the Grinch in late 20th-century Whoville. In my own personal favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle gets all sorts of different people to believe in him and be reconciled with one another – simply by doing the sorts of things all those other people would have been incapable of doing on their own.
Christmas – the Christmas that unites us here together in this church this morning – challenges us (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis) to believe that, in a world like ours, the Son of God became a man in our world – and then imagine what must happen as a result!
We already know – all too well – what must happen in our world without him! As St. Augustine (354-430) so succinctly expressed it: “If [God’s] Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair.” At best, we would have been like the merchants in Miracle on 34th Street, stuck in ourselves and so completely clueless about how to open our “shut-up hearts” and desperately in need of someone special to do it for us.
But instead, because of Christmas, we have an alternative, because we have that someone! In these last days, we just heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, God has spoken to us through his Son! [Hebrews 1:2]
Uniquely in the Church’s calendar, Christmas is observed by the celebration of three different Masses. At the 1st Mass - “during the Night”- the historical event of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is recalled. At the 2nd Mass – “in the morning” – the story of the shepherds hastening to the manger and then returning home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen [Luke 2:20], invites us to do the same - to experience the kindness and generous love, the mercy and forgiveness, of God our savior, appearing among us [Titus 3:4], opening up our “shut-up” hearts – and then, like the shepherds, to share this experience with the wider world. Finally, at the 3rd Mass – “during the day” – the incredible mystery of God becoming one of us, with us, and for us, is proclaimed in the simultaneously simply and awesome words of the John’s Gospel: the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth [John 1:14].
Like the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story, John’s Gospel invites us to believe what we hear, and then imagine what must happen as a result – to believe (if I may cite St. Augustine one more time) that “he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time,” and then imagine what must happen as a result!
We celebrate today what we profess every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son of God … for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. This is the Christmas story. Today, we kneel when we say those words, to highlight the fact and solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is the Christian story – our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to open our “shut-up” hearts, once and for all. And so, every time we come up this hill to hear this story of God-with-us, it really must become our story, challenging us, as we go back down the hill, to be remade by it ourselves and so to reimagine our world – and so transform our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.
Homily at the 3rd Mass of Christmas, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011.