By now most of us have probably seen the famous photo, taken by a tourist from Arizona some six weeks ago on November 14, on 7th Avenue at 44th Street in New York City – the by now familiar story of how NYPD Officer Larry De Primo went into a local store and bought a pair of insulated winter boots and thermal socks, then knelt down, and put them on an apparently homeless man. In our overly interactive and scandal-obsessed society, we have all become accustomed to what were, once, private indiscretions becoming instantly public - in most cases to nobody's real benefit. Now it seems that even individual and private acts of charity are also likely to get captured by someone's smartphone and sent around the world – “going viral,” to use the common, current expression. But, unlike the popular scandals of people's private indiscretions going public, scandals which bring us no tangible benefit beyond entertainment, such individual acts of private charity do bring benefit – first of all, to the person on the receiving end, whatever his or her actual circumstances and whether or not he or she puts the benefit to good use. But beyond that, the story having gone public, we all benefit in some sense. Certainly society benefits, when we are so vividly reminded of our connectedness and maybe moved to do something similar someday, some time, to someone, somewhere. At minimum, it makes for a nice, “feel-good” story in the midst of so much depressingly sad news – shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters, and temples, civil war in Syria, the “fiscal cliff” in Washington, etc.
In this season so focused on giving, it’s only natural in human terms to identify with the policeman and perhaps to hold him up as a model of how we might like more people to behave. But, on this Christmas Day, it seems to me more fitting to look at the picture from another angle – to identify ourselves rather with the shoeless, sockless street-person, whom we would otherwise never even have heard of, but into whose otherwise insignificant and anonymously cold existence a warm-hearted visitor came with shoes and socks – into whose otherwise insignificant and anonymously cold existence came (if only temporarily) a savior.
Like shoes and socks, most of us probably take Christmas for granted. Do we ever even consider where we'd be without Christmas – what the world would be like if Christ had never been born, what we would be like without Christ? As one of the leading lights of the ancient Church, St. Augustine, so famously said: 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.” Not just cold and alone, Augustine says, but “in despair.” Almost 50 years ago, the Second Vatican Council [LG, 16], echoing St. Paul’s depressing portrayal of humanity without Christ in his letter to the Romans, spoke of living and dying in a world without God as exposing people to what the Council called “ultimate despair.”
A serious problem calls for a serious solution. Officer De Primo didn’t casually throw some change in a cup and continue on his way. He took time and spent some serious money. So does God. So did God, who, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, has spoken to us through his Son. And so the angel said to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid … For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”
We’ve all heard the saying – perhaps even quoted it ourselves – that “90% of life is just showing up.” That’s what God did on Christmas. He showed up in our world – in a somewhat out-of-the-way place, under the less than optimal conditions that are so often experienced by immigrants, then as now, ... and with just some shepherds - not exactly a high-end audience - taking notice.
We tend to want our Christmases to be perfect. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is a way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really OK. In fact, of course, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those (like Mary and Joseph) who are homeless and have only strangers for company, by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by immigrants in refugee camps, by soldiers away at war (like my father, 68 years ago, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, in what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus showed up when and where and the way he did. As Pope Benedict has noted, in his recent book about Jesus' birth: "From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path" [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 67].
We celebrate today what we profess every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son of God … for us men 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 our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to warm not just our feet but our hearts, our entire selves, and so to save us from ourselves, once and for all.
The point is that God didn't just show up; he stayed! He stuck with us for the long haul! He's still showing up, still sticking with us - here in his Church! And that's what makes it possible for us, his Church, to show up ourselves, despite whatever obstacles we've put in God's way, to continue what he started back then, to continue what he started here and now in our world today, this Christmas, this year, and every year – uniting heaven and earth, spanning space and time, past, present, and future in one communion of saints, one universal network of friendship with Christ.
For, as St. Paul put it in his letter to Titus: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.
In showing up in his Son and staying with us in his Church, God really has given us the greatest of all Christmas presents. As another Doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) so memorably expressed it in the 12thcentury: “It is as if God sent upon the earth a purse full of mercy. The purse has been burst open to pour forth its hidden contents.”
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 (where we have been blessed with warm homes to return to), 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.
Christmas Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2012.