Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

Like many others, I first learned the Christmas story not mainly out of books or in classes – and certainly not from sermons – but from Christmas carols. And what a treasury of carols we have – everything from medieval Latin hymns to Spanish villancicos navideños, popular folk ballads, classical choral compositions, lullabies, and even contemporary country music creations like the ones we heard at our Paulist Fathers’ pre-Christmas outing to Dollywood last week. From boyhood, I have heard countless carols over and over. I have sung them year after year and know many of them by heart.

One of my favorite carols, which can be sung to several different tunes, takes its inspiration from the majestic finale of tonight’s Gospel.

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn king"
Peace on earth, and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled

Hearing and singing that carol 60-something years ago as a kid in the Bronx, I encountered a new word I didn’t know or understand. And so I asked my dad: what does it mean to be reconciled? So from him that day I learned the meaning of a word, which is how so much ordinary learning really takes place.  But learning the meaning of that one word - not as an abstract concept by itself but hearing and singing it in the context of a Christmas carol – I was learning the very heart and soul not only of the Christmas story but also of the entire Christian story – the story of God and sinners reconciled.  And I learned it not out of a book or in a class or from a sermon, but by hearing and singing a Christmas carol.

Later on, of course, came the books and the classes and even the sermons, and now  I can speak learnedly on the subject and quote Saint Paul that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us [2 Corinthians 5:19].

A visual analogue to hearing and singing Christmas carols is, of course, the nativity scene. Painted representations of the nativity scene appeared as wall decorations in ancient churches as early as the 4th century. But, in its present form, the custom of displaying figures depicting the birth of Jesus and the various persons and animals associated with the Christmas story owes its popularity to Saint Francis of Assisi, who created the first Christmas crib scene in Greccio on Christmas Eve 1223. Inspired by Saint Francis, the Church has continued to promote this devotion. Of course, Nativity scenes take certain liberties with the actual gospel story. The figures remain frozen in time. For example, the shepherds, who in the gospel story returned home glorifying and praising God, in the typical nativity scene instead stay around to welcome the magi. But, in a way that is both popular and profound, the nativity scene illustrates and teaches the central mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, who came in poverty, simplicity, and ordinariness.

For Christmas, as Pope Francis has said, is “the feast of the loving humility of God, of the God who upsets our logical expectations.”

That, of course, is what brings us here tonight. We celebrate tonight what we profess all year round – how for us and for our salvation God’s Only begotten Son came down from heaven, and became man. This is the Christmas story – sung in countless carols and visualized in millions of mangers all over the world. The Christmas story is the Christian story – our story – all year round.

Of course, different people come to Christmas with a variety of emotions. Some still come with the same excitement they had as children awaiting Santa’s arrival, Others come stuck in the cynicism of Ebenezer Scrooge. Some are worn out from shopping. Others just can’t wait for the post-Christmas sales. Some are sad; others elated. Some are preoccupied and distracted; others tranquil and clam. Christmas makes some feel all “joyful and triumphant.” Others get nostalgic and weepy – as I always still do whenever I hear Judy Garland sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

But to all of us, however we feel and however mixed our motives, Christmas commands us not to be afraid, for a savior has been born for us.

As Saint John of the Cross famously said: “By giving us, as he did, his Son, his only Word, God has said in that one Word everything.”

In telling us this story, the Gospel writers want us to understand that this all really happened, that Jesus was really born in our world that God’s Son became Mary’s Son, one of us. If Christmas had not happened, then the history of these past 20 centuries would have been very different indeed. And we ourselves would be very different. As Saint Augustine so poignantly 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.”

And surely the fearful temptation to despair, to give up, to abandon all hope, or to stop caring can be real enough whenever we look at the state of our world. Age-old religious conflicts and renewed rivalries among nations and states competing for relative advantage, apparently intractable economic, social, and political problems, the ticking time-bomb of climate change, and the deepening divide among our own fellow-citizens, angrily polarized as we increasingly are along ethnic, racial, educational, generational, and geographic lines – all add inevitably to our anxiety and to the world’s gloom.

But, because of Christmas, we have an alternative to all of that! Our problems are real, and our distress and our anxiety are real as well, but so must be our hope in what we just heard Saint Paul call the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.

“Christmas comes but once a year,” Charles Dickens famously said. But it’s easy to emphasize the wrong part of that sentence. It is not that Christmas comes only once a year, but that it unfailingly comes. Like the Savior himself and the reconciliation he brings, Christmas comes in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in recession, in war and in peace - God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Hence the command we hear over and over again in the Christmas stories, Do not be afraid.

A Catholic church has graced the top of this hill now for over 160 years. Back then, so I am told, the poor, unpopular immigrants who made up the Catholic community at the time would walk up this hill for Christmas Mass, penetrating the gloom of night and early morning with the light of their lanterns. That is what Christ’s coming does for our otherwise gloomy world, what Christmas calls each of us to do here and now. Having climbed this hill to this bright and beautiful church and here heard the familiar Christmas story, we must make sure it really is our story and so keep singing those carols as we go back down the hill to our homes and neighborhoods, reconciled with God by the power of the Christmas story and so set to reconcile one another and our city and our country and our world – transforming fear into trust, frustration into fulfillment, sadness into joy, despair into hope, hatred into love, loneliness into community, rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.

Christmas Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, December 25, 2016.

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