past week, thinking about what I should say on this, my last Christmas with you
all, I reread my homilies from my 10 Knoxville Christmases past. One thing I
noticed was how much I repeated myself. 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 a very old story. What new is there to
be said? Except, of course, that this has been a year unlike any most of us
have ever experienced. So this Christmas is also unlike any most of us have
been used to.
see something similar in the TV Christmas classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I am sure most of you have seen,
probably more than once, since its debut in 1965. There, too, Christmas seemed to have lost a
lot of its luster. But then 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.
course, people have been retelling - and adapting - the Christmas story for
centuries in literature and, more recently, on screen. Everyone in the
English-speaking world has heard of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Some have actually read it. Most have seen some
of the many movie and TV versions. Dickens was such a great fan of Christmas
that he wrote several more Christmas stories. One of them, The Seven Poor Travellers – about a Christmas Eve spent by the
narrator with 6 others in a hostel for travelers - 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
the earth a different place is something of a staple Christmas theme. After
all, Christmas is, as Dickens also famously 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
we all know how difficult opening those “shut-up hearts” of ours can be at even
the best of times, and these are not the best of times. This year, many of us
will have no place to go or anyone to be with this Christmas. Of course, every
year there are people with no place to go, no one to be with, no one to give them
gifts. For many, this is a day to feel even more lonely or maybe more poor than
usual. Hence the permanent appeal of every Christmas story that confirms for us
the power of Christmas to make a difference – 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 34th 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 that all those other people should have been doing
anyway but had unfortunately become incapable of doing on their own.
– 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!
may be a problematic word. It recalls a famous popular song imagining a utopia
with no religion. A better word might be “dream” – as in the title of Pope
Francis’ recent book, Let Us Dream: the
Path to a Better Future, in which, as its subtitle suggests, the Pope makes
expansive proposals for an alternative path.
he begins by exploring what this pandemic can teach us, the opportunities for
change contained in this crisis. He calls Covid-19 "our Noah moment, as
long as we can find our way to the Ark of the ties that unite us: of love, and
of a common belonging." For Francis, sounding like a modern-day Dickens, the
pandemic "has made visible the throwaway culture," thus enabling us
to respond to what indifference hides, opening us to new and unexpected
possibilities that "burst the bonds of our thinking."
his book, Francis shares with us some very personal crises in his own life, and
how he learned from each of these profoundly painful personal experiences
"that you suffer a lot, but if you allow it to change you, you come out
better. But if you dig in you come out worse."
himself in the Jesuit process of discernment, Francis invites us similarly to
see a time of trial as “always a time of distinguishing the paths of the good
that lead to the future from other paths that lead nowhere or backward. With
clarity, we can better choose the first."
brings us back to Christmas and those shepherds!
again to covid-19, we must sadly do without Christmas pageants this year. But
we may remember, perhaps from our own experience, how boys often compete to
play Joseph or perhaps one of the kings, but not so many try out for the role
of shepherd. Remember how, in A Charlie
Brown Christmas, it was Linus who was assigned that role.
in 1st-century Israel, shepherds didn’t merit much respect either.
As so often happens with low-status jobs that provide essential services (think
of so many front-line workers today), the shepherds were under-appreciated, and
they knew it. They were also probably pretty poor (again like so many
“essential” workers today). 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 widespread then as it is
So they were probably as surprised as
anyone when the angel announced the Savior’s birth to them. And, to them, a multitude of the heavenly host
proclaimed peace to those on whom God’s
favor rests. For maybe the first time, the shepherds experienced a completely
free gift, rather than another 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! In the 4th century,
Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called the shepherds’ at the
manger “the beginning of the infant Church.”
If none of this had never happened, then
of course the whole history of the past 20 centuries would have been very
different, even the way we number our years and count our centuries.
And, more to the point, 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 us, 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 Mary. 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.
Of course, all those people all really
were afraid, and for good reasons. And for all our holiday cheer, so are we,
worried above all about a dangerous disease that has taken control of our
world. I know I am afraid. In another week, I must fly to my new home, and I am
quite frankly frightened at the prospect of having to travel at this time under
these circumstances. And, even if there were no covid-19, we would still have a
lot to worry us. We would still be living in a country bitterly and angrily divided along racial, religious, and cultural
fault lines and long festering unresolved conflicts, a country in which many have
abandoned long-established constitutional and democratic norms which we as a
country once all cherished – all this at a time when anxiety rather than hope
seems to be dominant in much of the world, menaced as we are by our
changing climate’s hotter-than-ever summers, rising sea levels,
bigger-than-ever hurricanes, and frightening wildfires – and all the economic
and social dislocation these calamities cause. 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
Imprisoned by the Nazis in 1943, the German
Protestant pastor Dietrich Bohoeffer (1906-1945) wrote to his parents, recalling a Christmas scene
depicting the Holy Family “amidst the ruins of a broken down house.” He wrote:
“We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us.”
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, some “let’s
pretend” denial of the problems that surround us; and the baby whose birth we
celebrate is not some distantly ancient historical or mythological figure, but God-with-us!
We celebrate tonight what we profess
every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son
of God … was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. This is the
Christmas story. Tonight, we kneel at those words, to 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 in
our world and sticking around – to free us from fear, once and for all.
A Catholic church has graced the top of
this hill now for 165 years. Back then, so I am told, the poor, unpopular
immigrants who made up the local Catholic community at that 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 that it really remains our story, challenging us, wherever we will
be in Chistmases future, to be transformed by it ourselves – 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 Eve, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 24, 2020.
The entire Mass (in which the homily was somewhat abridged because of the snow) can be watched at:
The homily was repeated (this time in full) at the Christmas morning Mass, whihc can be watched at: