This past week, thinking about what I should say this Christmas, I reread all my homilies from my nine Knoxville Christmases past. One thing I noticed was that I have repeated myself quite a bit. No surprise, I suppose! How many new and different things can anyone say? And Christmas is, well, Christmas. We have been celebrating it for centuries. It is an old story. What new is there to be said?
That was the dilemma, sort of, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I am sure most of you have seen, probably more than once, since its debut in 1965. There, when Christmas seemed to have lost a lot of its luster, it was precisely the retelling of the old story in its plainest simplest version - Luke’s story of the angel’s surprising message to the shepherds, the same story we just heard tonight - that seemed to say everything that needed to be said and so changed everything in the process.
Of course, people have been retelling - and adapting - the Christmas story for centuries in literature and, more recently, onscreen. I suppose hardly anyone in the English-speaking world hasn’t heard of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Some have even read it. Many more have seen some of the many movie and TV versions – classic Black & white to IMAX 3-D. Dickens was such a great fan of Christmas that he wrote several Christmas stories, in addition to the one about Scrooge. One of my favorites is The Seven Poor Travellers – about a Christmas Eve spent by the narrator with 6 others in a hostel for travelers. The story includes Dickens’ famous line: “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.”
Making the earth a different place is something of a staple Christmas theme. After all, Christmas is, as Dickens also said: “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 their shut-up hearts freely.”
Of course, as we all also know, not everyone will have a place to go or will be getting gifts this Christmas. For some, this is a day to feel even more lonely or more poor than usual. We all know how difficult opening those “shut-up hearts” of ours can be at times. Hence the permanent appeal of every Christmas story that confirms for us the power of Christmas to do just that – whether for Ebenezer Scrooge in Victorian London, or for Mrs. Hamilton in 1940s New York in the Christmas movie The Bishop’s Wife, or for the Grinch in late 20th-century Whoville. In my own personal favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34thh Street, Kris Kringle gets all sorts of different people to believe in him and be reconciled with one another – simply by doing the sorts of things all those other people had unfortunately become incapable of doing on their own.
Christmas – the Christmas that unites us here together in this church today – challenges us (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis) to believe that, in a world like ours, the Son of God became one of us – and then to imagine what must result!
Which brings us back to the shepherds!
In Christmas pageants, boys often compete to play Joseph or perhaps one of the kings. Not so many try out for the role of shepherd. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, it was Linus who was assigned that role.
Even in 1st-century Israel, shepherds didn’t merit much status either. As so often happens with low-status jobs that provide essential services (think of immigrant laborers today), the shepherds were under-appreciated, and they knew it. To top it off, they were probably pretty poor. The widespread tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor – what Adam Smith (1723-1790) called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” – was likely as universal then as it is now.
So it was probably a surprise to everyone (including the shepherds themselves) when the angel announced the birth of a savior who is Messiah and Lord - to them. To them, a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed peace to those on whom God’s favor rests (the implication being that the shepherds themselves were now numbered among those so favored by God). For perhaps the first time, the shepherds experienced a free gift, rather than a commercial transaction. The gift was nothing less than what Saint Paul, writing to Titus, called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. The shepherds were being invited to experience God’s kindness and generous love themselves, and then to share it with others. And, just as surprisingly, that’s exactly what they did!
There must be something special about angelic messages that suggests urgency, something special about good news of great joy for all people that just takes hold of its hearers and makes them move! So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger. As Pope Francis recently remarked: “Unlike so many other people, busy about many things, the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation.” [Admirabile Signum, 5]. In the 4th century, Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called the shepherds’ arrival at the manger “the beginning of the infant Church.”
The Christmas story which we have heard so many times before and have just heard again tonight, begins by announcing who the Emperor was and what was going on in the world at the time. Saint Luke wants us to understand that the story he is telling really happened as part of the history of the world. Jesus was really born. God’s Son became Mary’s Son, a human being like us.
if Christmas had never happened, the whole history of the past 20 centuries would have been very, very different. And, even more important than that, we ourselves would be very different. As Saint Augustine (354-430) so succinctly 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.”
But instead, because of Christmas, we do have an alternative to despair! Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We heard those same words this past Sunday, spoken by the angel to Joseph. We will hear them again at Easter, from the mouth of the Risen Lord himself, the same Risen Lord whom we encounter whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. “Laid in a manger,: Saint Augustine said, “he became our food.” [Sermon 189, 4]
Of course, all those people all really were afraid, and for good reasons. And for all our holiday cheer, so perhaps are we as well, in this truly turbulent time in our national life, in a country bitterly and angrily divided along ethnic, racial, educational, and geographical lines, at a time when anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of today’s world, menaced as we are by our changing climate with its hotter-than-ever summers, melting Arctic ice, rising sea levels, bigger-than-ever hurricanes, widespread deforestation, and wildfires. It is in just such a world that we hear and celebrate this ancient, yet so contemporary-sounding story of the birth of a baby in poverty, far from home, his very life soon threatened by political violence, his family forced to seek asylum as political refugees.
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 is real enough, and our anxiety about it is honest, but so must be our hope - the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
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!
How often have we all heard the saying – perhaps even quoted it ourselves – that so much of life is just showing up? That’s what God did for us 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 only some shepherds taking notice.
But he showed up! And he stayed! He stuck with us! He’s still showing up! He’s still sticking with us – here in his Church! And that in turn makes it possible for us – as his Church – to show up, without fear, to continue what he started, in our world today, this year, and every year.
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, 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 the Christian story – our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to free us from fear, once and for all.
A Catholic church has graced the top of this hill now for 164 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 morning 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. And so, having climbed this hill to this bright and beautiful church and here heard the familiar Christmas story, this story of God-with-us, we must make sure it really remains our story, challenging us, wherever we will be in Chistmases future. to be remade by it ourselves and so to reimagine our world – and so transform our fear into trust, our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our despair into hope, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our divisions into unity, 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, 2019.