Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day

“Christmas comes but once a year – which is unhappily too true, for when it begins to stay with us the whole year round we shall make this earth a very different place.” So spoke the narrator in one of Charles Dickens Christmas stories, The Seven Poor Travellers. As with all good Christmas stories – including the more familiar Dickens story A Christmas Carol – while a lot happens during the night, it’s on Christmas morning when it all seems to come together.

When I was growing up, Christmas morning followed a set, perfectly predictable pattern. It was a ritual really. We kids got up, bright and early, and woke up our parents. Then all of us (including my grandmother, who as always was awake and up before any of us) went into the living room, lit the Christmas Tree, and immediately began opening the abundance of presents so neatly arranged under and around the tree. Before long, there were gifts - and torn wrappings and ribbons - all over the place. After that, it was time to get dressed and go to Mass, then breakfast, then more time with our toys, before bundling up for the trek to Westchester for an Italian Christmas feast at my uncle’s mansion. (It was actually a typical 1950s suburban home. But, since my uncle was the only relative around, who actually owned his own home, it seemed like a mansion to us).

Times have changed since then, to be sure, but people everywhere (including, no doubt, many in this church this morning) will be doing similar things today – visiting relatives and friends, and, of course, 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. Not all the gifts will be appreciated, and some will be returned to the store in search of something better, bigger, or brighter. Our modern Christmas is a lot of work, and it can exhaust even the hardiest reveler. Even worse, with all the emphasis on satisfaction and consumption, a lot of folks can get left out, and end up feeling, if anything, even more lonely or more poor on Christmas than at any other time. We all know that. Still, Christmas is, as Dickens again so delightfully 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 up their shut-up hearts freely.”

Now, of course, we all know how difficult opening our “shut-up hearts” can be. Hence the perennial appeal of every Christmas story that confirms Christmas’s peculiar power to do just that – whether for Ebeneezer Scrooge in Victorian London or the Grinch in 20th-century Whoville. In my own favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle somehow gets all sorts of people to believe in him and be reconciled with one another – simply by doing just the sorts of things all those other people would have been completely incapable of doing on their own, had it not been for his presence in their lives, changing their entire world.

Christmas – the authentic Christmas that unites us 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 – and then to imagine what must happen as a result!

We already know – all too well – what would happen in our world without him! How much have you loved us, kind Father, exclaimed St. Augustine. If your 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 (and all the other ordinary people in the film) completely incapable of opening up our “shut-up hearts,” desperately in need of someone special to do it for us.

Christmas challenges us to believe that the Son of God is really present in our lives, transforming our world, doing it for us – and then to act on that belief and imagine what must happen as a result!

Christmas challenges us to believe what we just heard in the letter to the Hebrews – that God has in these last days spoken to us through his Son, through whom he created the universe and who sustains all things by his mighty word – and then to imagine what must happen as a result!

Christmas challenges us to believe (if I may quote 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 to imagine what must happen as a result!

Christmas challenges us to act on the belief that all this has already happened – that God has spoken to us through his Son, that the Word has become flesh and does dwell among us, in our own short day of time.

In Dickens’ story The Seven Poor Travellers, the narrator, continuing on his way on Christmas morning, said he “felt as if all Nature shared in the joy of the great Birthday.”

“Going through the woods,” he continued, “the softness of my tread upon the mossy ground and among the brown leaves enhanced the Christmas sacredness by which I felt surrounded. … I came to the village, and the churchyard where the dead had been quietly buried, ‘in the sure and certain hope’ which Christmastime inspired. What children could I see at play, and not be loving of, recalling who had loved them! No garden that I passed was out of unison with the day, for I remembered that the tomb was in a garden … In time, the distant river with the ships came full in view, and with it pictures of the poor fishermen, mending their nets, who arose and followed him, - and of the teaching of the people from a ship pushed off a little way from the shore, by reason of the multitude, - of a majestic figure walking on the water, in the loneliness of night. My very shadow on the ground was eloquent of Christmas; for did not the people lay their sick where the mere shadows of the men who had heard and seen him might fall as they passed along?"

“Thus Christmas begirt me, far and near … toward the lights of London. Brightly they shone, but not so brightly as my own fire, and the brighter faces around it, when we came to celebrate the day.”

Among us too, this Christmas morning, the kingdom of God is being born, breaking into our otherwise ordinary and self-enclosed world and offering it the precious possibility of hope. So, when the last carol has been sung and we disperse from here to our happy homes and holiday meals (or, perhaps, as so many in our world, to a somewhat sad or lonely home or a modest, maybe even meager meal), may that same precious and powerful hope move us - 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.

All this, because we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

Merry Christmas!

Homily for the Mass of Christmas Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2010.

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