Christmas Homily 2018
Little Leo and His Great Uncle
A few weeks ago, I received a text message with a photo from an old friend, a friend whom I had not seen in person for quite some time.
My friend was holding his new grandnephew, a recently born child named Leo. Little Leo has bright eyes and a beautiful smile. He has come into the world happy and healthy, loved by his faith-filled parents, his brothers and sisters, and his extended family.
Looking at the image of that smiling newborn, I saw the light of joy and promise in his eyes. And for that brief moment, the world seemed to be made new.
But something else surprised and delighted me as I looked at that electronic image. My friend who was holding his great nephew was all smiles, as you’d expect, but I also noticed that he himself looked like a new person.
During the past two years, he had hit a rough patch in his life. His work was filled with unbearable pressures and his personal life began to suffer.
His many problems harmed his health, contributed to a gain in weight, raised his blood pressure, and brought him to the point of becoming diabetic.
So my friend decided to do something about his situation – to renew his life.
He strengthened his relationship with God through spiritual direction and confession, and he found peace by spending more time each day in private prayer and by centering his life upon the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist.
My friend also discovered ways to improve his work situation while at the same time taking better care of his health – watching his diet, exercising regularly, dealing with stress more creatively.
So, while I saw new life and new hope in the eyes of little Leo, I also saw it in the eyes and in the smile of my good friend who looked hale and hearty and almost ten years younger.
That text message was a powerful reminder to me that new life and new hope are possible at any stage of life, no matter what we’re facing, no matter what we’ve been through.
The Promise of the Christ-Child
If we give ourselves the time and space and quiet to do so – we too can discover the peace, joy and spiritual renewal available to us at Christmas.
Most people relish the family gatherings, the gifts, the meals, and the parties – and while these are good and enjoyable things, they do not hold the key to the meaning of Christmas and to its power to change our lives for the better.
To unlock the meaning and power of Christmas, I’d invite you to do what I did only a few days ago: to gaze upon a baby.
Seeing babies in their littleness and newness gives us comfort and hope coupled with the promise of a better tomorrow.
When we peer into the manger scene at Christmas, we also see a newborn Infant, a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, a Baby who smiled and cried and was utterly dependent upon his parents.
Yet, this was no ordinary Baby but the Christ-Child – the One over whose birth Scripture rejoices and the Church’s liturgy celebrates – the One whose birth was marked by a star-lit sky, by shepherds, and by angels whose splendid announcement we never tire of repeating: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.”
Yes, “Mary gave birth,” Pope Francis tells us, “she gave us Jesus, the light of the world.
A simple story that plunges us into the event that changes our history forever. Everything that night became a source of hope.” … And it’s true!
For the Child born to Mary and Joseph on that star-lit evening was and is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word, the Word made flesh.
St. John says of him that he was the author of life and the light of the world: ‘the light shining in the darkness’ – ‘the true light which enlightens every person.’
His birth signals a new creation, a new beginning, a new dawning of God’s love in world that has grown old in sin and in human hearts that are weary and searching.
The faith we proclaim in this newborn Child who, by his Cross, will descend into the sinful depths of human existence, enables us see God in all those situations where we think he is absent.
Discovering God amid the Darkness
And how numerous are those situations where we seem to feel the absence of God. We may feel his absence in a devastated urban neighborhood or when we see a loved one in the grip of addiction, or when we quarrel with others, or when we and our families are beset by sadness, illness, or even tragedy.
The crisis that has gripped the Church anew has shaken the faith of many, and many others continue to suffer from the lingering effects of abuse. Our hearts are longing and searching for channels of life and hope and joy and peace.
Yes, at the end of a very difficult and challenging year, individually and as a church community, we may feel as my friend felt.
Two years ago, he felt as though his life were in a steep decline. Just as he could see few reasons to be hopeful, let alone cheerful, so too we may find it hard to stave off similar feelings this Christmas.
Well does the prophet Isaiah speak for us when he describes ‘a people who walked in darkness…’ a people ‘who dwelt in a land of gloom’ … a people carrying heavy burdens both personal and institutional.
Such was the situation of the Israelites when Isaiah wrote those words. They were a people facing deportation and exile, and the destruction of everything they held near and dear.
To this people, Isaiah showed ‘a great light’ and ‘abundant joy’ – “For a child is born to us, a son is given us…”
He is “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”
This is the Child you and I can hold in our arms and carry in our hearts, this day and every day of our lives, if we choose to do so. We do indeed hold him in our arms and carry him in our hearts when we participate in Mass, receive him in Holy Communion and allow him to recreate our hearts through penitence and Confession.
And so, no matter what we have endured or will endure, or whatever spiritual condition we may find ourselves in, we too can experience new life and new joy in Christ Jesus. We too can we receive “newness of life” (Romans 6:4) from the Baby born this day for us in Bethlehem.
Paul tells us as much in our second reading from his letter to Titus: “Beloved [he writes]: 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 our great God and Savior Jesus Christ….”
In other words, if we open ourselves to receive the grace of Christmas, if its power and meaning hit home and invade our hearts this day, then indeed our lives can change: we can throw off the things that weigh us down; we can shed the weight of sin; slough off the pressure of going it alone and the imbalance of inordinate self-love . . . and we can do all these things to such a degree that we are happy to be alive: alive in Christ, alive in the Spirit, alive with the message of the Gospel.
Then, even in the most difficult and depressing situations, the light of Christ will shine in us and through us onto the darkness. Then we will become a light to others and a light to our world.
And, when you come right down to it, there is no other way ultimately to renew the Church – to renew the Church’s holiness, beauty, integrity, and vigor – no way other than our undergoing the very renewal that Christmas will forever signal.
Little Leo and Pope St. Leo the Great
If little Leo, in the arms of my friend held out the promise of new life and hope, Pope St. Leo the Great challenges us to hold fast to the hope upon which we can stake our life and destiny.
He writes: “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.”
Dear friends, may we all know the true hope and joy and power of Christmas and may each of you and your loved ones experience in these days the happiest and most memorable Christmas of them all!
God bless you and keep you always in his love!