Before being assigned here, as many of you know, I was for 10 years an Associate Pastor at the Paulist “Mother Church,” Saint Paul the Apostle Parish in New York City. For a number of those years, I helped facilitate a monthly program called “Great Religious Fiction,” in which each month we’d read a different book and discuss it. I do read a lot; but, other than medieval mysteries, my fiction-reading is rather limited. So I really came to appreciate being able to read so many wonderful stories – and all as part of my job!
Anyway, one December, our book was, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, by Oscar Hijuelos, who died just this past October. Hijuelos had won a Pulitzer in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. So his death was widely noted. And that reminded me of Mr. Ives’ Christmas. When it was published in 1995, one reviewer compared Hijuelos to Dickens and called the book his “’Christmas Carol’ for a crime-ridden, ethnically divided urban America.” It tells the story of a commercial artist at a New York advertising agency and his wife and family living in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights - from New York’s nostalgically golden decades to the 1990s. Edward Ives had been significantly shaped by the experience of being abandoned as a baby, then raised in a Catholic Foundling Home, and finally adopted just before Christmas in 1924. This experience had left him with an intense desire for a family of his own, a theme that permeates the entire book.
The central event in the story is the death of Mr. Ives’s 17-year old son Robert, a seminarian-to-be, pointlessly shot on the street as he was coming home from choir practice at Ascension Church a few days before Christmas 1967. The loss of his son sends Mr. Ives into decades of mourning and grief, from which he eventually emerges by the grace of forgiveness, receiving redemption himself through forgiving his son’s murderer. As Christmas stories go, it has it all – family and faith, testing by tragedy, and redemption by grace.
Like so many of us, Oscar Hijuelos loved Christmas. Even in the chaotic 60s, he cherished his Christmases with his best friend’s family. In later life, he and his wife loved decorating their tree with ornaments collected during their travels. “When we looked at the tree,” his widow has said, “we saw our life.”
And don’t we all do that too – as each Christmas comes as a kind of gift to us?
I think we all 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, however, and not just in novels, 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 far from home, by refugees in temporary camps that have a way of becoming permanent, by soldiers at war (like my own father, 69 years ago, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).
Two Christmases earlier, midway through that terrible war, Pope Pius XII addressed the war-torn world with these words: “As the Holy Christmas Season comes round each year, the message of Jesus, Who is light in the midst of darkness, echoes once more from the crib of Bethlehem … It is a message which lights up with heavenly truth a world that is plunged in darkness by fatal errors. It infuses exuberant and trustful joy into mankind,, torn by the anxiety of deep, bitter sorrow. … It promises mercy, love, peace to the countless hosts of those in suffering and tribulation who see their happiness shattered and their efforts broken in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.”
We’ve all heard the saying – perhaps even quoted it ourselves – “90% of life is just showing up.” That’s what God did on Christmas. He showed up “in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.” He showed up in a somewhat out-of-the-way place, under the less than optimal conditions so often experienced by poor immigrants and refugees then as now - and with just some shepherds (hardly a high-end audience) taking notice.
But God didn't just show up; he stayed with us! He stayed with us for the long haul. He stays 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, and so to continue what he started back then, to continue what he started here and now in our world tonight, 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.
And just how do we do that? In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) Pope Francis has outlined what it means to be a Church that shows up in the world, continuing what began this day in Bethlehem. He challenges us all “to go out of ourselves and to join others … to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us” [EG, 87-88].
We celebrate tonight 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. Tonight, the ritual requires us to kneel when we say those words, to 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 inviting us into a new relationship with him and with our world – “a personal relationship,” as Pope Francis says, “not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints” [EG, 90].When at the end of the story Mr. Ives visited and reconciled with his son’s killer, in that moment, the reader is told, “Ives knew, his son was somewhere in that room, and approving of what he beheld.” The God who became incarnate in Jesus is inviting us this Christmas to become incarnate in 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.
As Pope Francis has said, “the love of God, once welcomed becomes the most formidable means of transforming our lives and relationships with others, opening us to solidarity and to genuine sharing” [2014 World Day of Peace Message].
For, as St. Paul wrote 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.
So every time we come up this hill to this bright and beautiful church to hear this Christmas story, may it truly become our story. May it challenge us to bring the brightness and beauty we experience in this church with us back down the hill and so to re-imagine 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 for Christmas Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2013.