25 December 2020

Homily for Christmas 2020

 The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters,

Paradoxically, despite the frustration and anxiety many feel outside this church right now, there seems to be a certain quiet – a good quiet – within this church because things are rather different this year, as you well know. We are smaller in number; we are more spread out; the ceremonies are simpler; and the music is less than in most years. Looked at wrongly, all of this could increase one’s frustration and anxiety, but looked at rightly, all of this can help us focus on why we have come or, rather, on why He has come.

One of those who would have helped us focus on the essential aspect of Christmas is Dorothy Day. She was one of the pioneers in what some call the social justice movement – I say some because “social justice” is but one aspect of being Catholic. She recognized the power of the Liturgy to transform the world by transforming us.

The Liturgy of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, the – the Liturgy of Christmas – has a particular power to transform the world by transforming us. Concerning Christmas, Dorothy Day is said to have said:

I’m so glad that Jesus was born in a stable, because my soul is so much like a stable. It is poor and in unsatisfactory condition because of guilt, falsehoods, inadequacies, and sin. Yet I believe that if Jesus can be born in a stable, maybe also he can be born in me. 

It is a beautiful thought, is it not?

We like to romanticize the Birth of the Christ-Child. We like to think that his Birth in a stable, surrounded by animals and hay, was charming. But, if we are honest, this was not the reality. Saint Bede the Venerable described the circumstances of the Savior’s Birth in more reasonable terms:

It should be noted that the sign given of the Savior’s birth is not a child enfolded in Tyrian purple, but one wrapped with rough pieces of cloth. He is not to be found in an ornate golden bed, but in a manger. The meaning of this is that he did not merely take upon himself our lowly mortality, but for our sakes took upon himself the clothing of the poor.[1]

Saint Jerome, who spent the last part of his life in a cave in Bethlehem, was a bit more colorful – and perhaps more realistic -in his description. He said,

He found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk and silver. He is not born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable where our sins were filthier than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it: “From the dunghill he lifts up the poor” (Psalm 113:7).[2]

All of this is to say that Jesus chose to be born into the messiness and unpleasantness of our lives; he is not afraid of it. Rather, he desires to cleanse it, to redeem us, and to fill us with his peace.

          This is why that heavenly choir of angels sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace that comes from the Lord is not much like what we see in so many holiday shows and movies, nor is it what we sing about in so many holiday songs. After all, Jesus himself tells us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27).

The peace of Christ is not just people being kind and nice to each other; it may certainly include this, but it is not the warm and fuzzy feeling that many have come to associate with Christmas. Rather, the peace that comes from Christ is the peace that reconciles us to the Father and allows us to approach God without shame. This is why Saint Paul tells us that Jesus has made peace “by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Jesus fulfilled the words the angel said to Joseph, “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew1:21). This is why the Holy Infant has come and, I pray, why we have come.

We should not be afraid to open the stables of our hearts to the Christ Child, for he can indeed be born in us. When he starts to have a look around within our stables, and begins to see our guilt, our falsehoods, our inadequacies, and our sins, we should not try to distract him but should allow him to reveal to us what he does. If we confess these to him we can tidy up our stables for him through his merciful love; with the help of his grace, we can put the stables of our hearts in satisfactory condition for him.

Far more than feasting and gathering and gifting, the real heart of Christmas involves us allowing the Child of Bethlehem to enter into the messiness and unpleasantness of our lives. Even as a Child, he calls out to us, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). But when he comes, he does not come in the midst of distractions or fervent activity; he comes in the quiet, he comes unexpectedly, he comes in the stillness.

This Christmas, when so many of our usual celebrations at Christmas are lessened or put aside altogether, we ought not become upset or troubled. Instead, we should seek to be grateful for the opportunity to quiet ourselves so the Lord can take up his abode in the stables of our hearts. This is my prayer for you and yours this Christmas, that we will all allow ourselves to be still and make room for the Christ Child. If we do, this can be the best Christmas we have known. Amen.

[1] Saint Bede the Venerable, Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, 1. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. III: Luke (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003.

[2] Saint Jerome, On the Nativity of the Lord. In ibid.

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