Friday, December 25, 2015

Fear Not!

It's not really a Christmas movie. It is not actually a Christmas movie at all, but one of my favorite films is Gosford Park, a 2001, British costume-drama, murder mystery, in which Dame Maggie Smith plays Constance, Countess of Trentham.  It is set in November 1932, when the Countess and her lady's maid travel to an English country estate for a typical aristocratic shooting weekend. While dressing for the next event on the weekend calendar and contemplating what to wear in the cold, the Countess murmurs in her wonderfully over-privileged way, “Why do we have to do these things?”

“Why do we have to do these things?” The Countess’s ironic question came to mind the other day as I was thinking about all the things people nowadays have to do – or think they have to do - for Christmas. Personally, I have always loved Christmas, but I sometimes think that modern life has managed to make Christmas very, very complicated for a lot of people, which may be why so many seem to be more exhausted than exhilarated by all that shopping and visiting and celebrating. Yet, in spite of all that, the basic idea of Christmas is quite simple, which may be why people have usually been so eager to celebrate it, no matter how difficult or challenging the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The basic idea of Christmas was simple enough in 1818 in the Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, where Father Joseph Mohr was busy doing all the things he had to do to get ready for Christmas in his little parish church of Saint Nicholas, when (so the story goes) he suddenly found himself with without a working organ for Christmas – a stressful situation anywhere, but especially so in that very musical culture. Father Mohr had no choice but to downsize his Christmas expectations. He took out a little Christmas poem he had recently written and brought it to his friend Franz Gruber, who set it to music that anyone could sing. And so we got Silent Night, which has since become perhaps the world’s most famous and favorite Christmas carol.

It is a beautiful carol, but I do have to wonder how silent and calm Christmas actually was way back 2000+ years ago. Trudging to Bethlehem with a pregnant wife and no hotel reservation, Joseph too might well have wondered, “Why do we have to do these things?”

And it only got worse when, having been turned away from the village inn, they had to settle for a stable and a manger for the baby’s birth - like so many migrants and refugees today, turned away from one border or other and forced to fend for themselves. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph soon became political refugees themselves when, like millions of displaced persons today, they were forced to flee through a hostile environment to find shelter in a foreign country. Fortunately for them, Egypt’s border was open, unlike so many borders today.

We have no newsreels or YouTube videos from the 1st century to document the Holy Family’s flight from Herod’s terror. But we have more than enough images in today’s world to show us just what their flight must have been like. Herod himself, for all his royal pretensions, was not a member of Israel’s real royal family, the house of David. He was just another minor warlord whose rule was convenient for Roman imperial power, much as tyrannical local warlords rule in many places today because they serve the interests of bigger regional powers. 

We have images from today’s news to help us picture that first Christmas. But we also have something more. We have the gospel story, the story that tells us not only what happened but why, when God entered this world as one of us – as we say all the time in the Creed, kneeling today to give it added emphasis, for us and for our salvation.

Not everyone welcomed God’s coming into our world. Not everyone welcomes him now. But, as John’s gospel assures us, to those who do welcome him, he gives power to become children of God, the God we can count on to fill our lives with his overflowing grace and mercy. As St. Augustine (354-430) so succinctly expressed it centuries ago: “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.”

But instead, because of Christmas, we now do have an alternative to despair! Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We will hear them again at Easter, from the Risen Lord speaking to his disciples, the same Risen Lord who comes to us again and again whenever we celebrate the Eucharist.

By the way, next time you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (which I have watched every year since its debut 50 years ago), be sure to notice how even Linus drops his blanket at the moment when he recites those words, Fear not!
Of course, the shepherds at Christmas and the disciples at Easter really were afraid – and for some very good reasons. And for all our happy holiday cheer, so perhaps are we, as we come to the end of another difficult and challenging year and look ahead – with hope, to be sure, but also with anxiety. It’s not for nothing that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our distress may be real enough, and our anxiety about it honest, but so must be our hope - the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who fills us with his grace and mercy and takes away all our fear.
That is why we celebrate Jesus’ birth not with a birthday cake but with the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. For this is not some nostalgic holiday pageant. And the baby whose birth we celebrate is not just some distantly ancient historical figure, but God-with-us!
So, while we may not need to do all the things we do that can make Christmas seem so stressful, we do very much need Christmas!

The God who became human in Jesus is inviting us this Christmas to take seriously his coming into our world – as Pope Francis has said, to be “convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him.” Taking seriously Christ’s coming into our world means making ours as well the commitment that he himself made when he became one of us in our world on Christmas – in the wonderful words of Charles Wesley’s familiar carol: Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.

Once again this Christmas, Christ comes into our world bringing his peace and mercy and reconciling us to God and one another. And so he invites us to take seriously his coming into our world - to overcome whatever barriers remain between us, between young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, native and immigrant, friend and foe.

So every time we come up our hill to this bright and beautiful church to hear this familiar Christmas story, it must really become our story too, challenging us to bring the brightness and beauty we experience in this church with us back down the hill into the streets and neighborhoods, the homes and living rooms of our city, and so to reimagine our world – and, in so doing, to transform our fear into hope, 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.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2015.

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