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The Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2016

Click here to listen to this homily (.mp4 file)
 
     Not so many years ago, there lived among the poor people in the squalid barrios of Recife, Brazil, a humble servant bishop who was a lot like Pope Francis.  His name was Helder Camara.  “Dom Helder,” people called him because he liked fancy titles no more than he liked the trappings of his high office.  Dom Helder had a prophet’s voice and a poet’s heart.  Here’s a prayer of his that gives a little window onto Christmas.
 
          In the middle of the night,
          When stark night was darkest,
          You chose to come.
          At midnight upon the earth, Lord,
          Moonless night, starved of stars.
          Can we forget that You,
          The Son of God,
          Chose to be born at midnight?
          If you had been afraid of shadows
          You would have been born at noon.
          But you preferred the shadows
          You preferred the night.
 
     The Christmas story is the story of a God who prefers the shadows: the dark of midnight to the light of day; a humble stable to a royal palace; obscure Bethlehem to proud Jerusalem; a helpless infant to a powerful warrior; a carpenter’s shop to a finishing school; unlettered fishermen to sophisticated academics; tax collectors and prostitutes to the comfortably self-righteous.
 
     The Christmas story loses its punch if we eliminate the shadows: if we frame it only in gilded cards full of light and warmth or freeze it in manger scenes devoid of manger smells. It loses its punch.  It no longer shocks or surprises and make no mistake: Christmas should both shock and surprise.

     Some years ago, the late and noted American novelist, Walker Percy, got surprised by Christmas during Christmas Mass.  He later wrote about it to a professor-friend at Harvard University.  “The Mass,” he wrote, “was going on, the homily standard.  The choir of young musicians got going on ‘Joy to the World’…then it hit me: what if it should really be the case that the Creator of the entire cosmos decided for reasons of his own to show up as a little baby, conceived and born under suspicious circumstances?  Well,” he concluded, “you can lay it to senility or a hangover or whatever you wish, but it hit me!  It just hit me.  I had to pretend I had an allergy attack so I could take out my handkerchief….”

     Now Walker Percy was no stranger to the Catholic faith.  He was an adult convert who practiced his faith.  But his faith was rather academic, something of an abstraction.  And Christmas?  Christmas had never really ‘hit’ him.  Not until that Christmas when, for no good reason he could think of, God got through to him, and he had to reach for his handkerchief.

     Walker Percy was surprised by Christmas.  And Christmas does have power to surprise.  It really shouldn’t have happened, you know.  Christmas shouldn’t.  Certainly not in the way it did.  It defies all reason, all common sense.  It’s a story that only God could have dreamt up: a virgin with child, a birth in a stable, a visit by shepherds, the rude sounds of animals mixed with the heavenly voices of angels.  That’s Luke’s version.  Matthew adds the mysterious Magi, star-gazers who took one star very seriously, a long journey, a vicious despot of a king, lavish gifts, kings on their knees, royal robes dusting a stable floor.  And as if that weren’t enough, John the Evangelist, in the beginning of his gospel, takes surprise beyond the line of sight and into the land of symbol where light shines in the darkness, and the Word becomes flesh.

     My friends, this is pretty surprising stuff. It really shouldn’t have happened.  The wonder is that it did.  The wonder is that we don’t wonder!

     There are many feasts on the Church’s calendar but Christmas is the one we like best.  No matter that Easter is certifiably a greater feast than Christmas – Christmas is still the favorite.  Easter challenges the mind but Christmas touches the heart.  We identify with Christmas.  The child in us identifies with the baby in the manger; the romantic in us identifies with Mary and Joseph whose young love overcame all obstacles: fear, misunderstanding, rash judgment, the demands of a distant, unfeeling bureaucracy, a no-vacancy sign hung out all over town.

     We identify with Christmas.  We identify with the shepherds because we like stories in which the underdog comes out on top; and we identify with the Magi because we, too, know what searching, wondering and wandering are all about.

     We do identify with Christmas.  But are we surprised by Christmas?  I think we’ve heard the story so very often, seen the stable, listened to the carols, trimmed the trees, wrapped and opened the presents so many times that we’re no longer surprised by any of it.  

     But, my friends, it is surprising.  Wonderfully surprising.  And the surprise is not just something of the past, not just what happened on a winter’s night so long ago in Bethlehem.  No, the surprise goes on.  The surprise is not only that God become one of us and shivered one night in a manger – the surprise is also that from that moment on God has never stopped shivering in our human flesh.  God has never stopped being human.  One of us.

     That is not only the surprise of Christmas, it is also the challenge of Christmas.  We need not journey to ancient Bethlehem to find the Christ.  He waits for us in our cities, our neighborhoods, our homes, our streets, our shadows.  Wherever there is human need of any kind, there is the helpless Christ lying in a manger, the poor Christ with nowhere to lay his head. Christ waits to be found by those who have eyes to see God in the ordinary and the unexpected, those who, like children, can still be surprised.

     My friends in Christ, it is my fervent prayer that we will be surprised by Christmas this year.  Really surprised.  I say “we” and I mean it. This is for me as much as for you.  As a priest and a pastor, it falls to me to try to throw light on the Christmas story as best I can but, you know, I would much rather find myself surprised out of my mind by Christmas.  Like Walker Percy was.  Surprised, and feeling an “allergy” coming on, and reaching for my handkerchief….

Father Michael G. Ryan 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
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