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December 25, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 41:55)

           I never hear the wonderful words of the Christmas Gospel without reliving some very fond memories of Christmases past, childhood memories of Christmas Mass at the old St. Anne's Church on top of Queen Anne Hill – now long gone -- where our pastor, Father Quain, stern but lovable, read the gospel in his sing-songy Irish brogue, still thick as flannel long decades after he had left the old sod. 

            Those same memories include the manger scene that sat in front of a side altar. The stable was kind of rickety, the shepherds were a bit the worse for wear, the donkey begged for some touchup paint, and the camel, propped up against the corner of the stable, had a face as wise and all-seeing as the faces of the wise men themselves.

            Christmas memories also take me back to my second grade classroom at the parish school where I memorized momentous words from St. Luke's Gospel, not quite grasping their meaning, but sensing their importance nonetheless, "In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken...."  The Christmas story casts a spell no matter how often it is told. It’s a story with power to stir the memory, to delight the imagination, and to move the heart.

            Part of the charm of the story lies in the sheer poetry of it all. St. Luke’s version tells of a birth in a stable, of a bright light in the night sky, of angelic visions and voices, of shepherds in the hills tending their flocks by night. St. Matthew’s version adds the mysterious Magi, sages from the east who follow a star in search of a child whom they present with priceless gifts. St. John's version takes the poetry to an even deeper level as he tells of a light shining in the darkness and of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

            But, my friends, there is more than lovely poetry here, much more. There is prose, too: dreary prose that hit me hard earlier this year during our parish pilgrimage when we visited Bethlehem and saw the ugly, hated wall that Israel built for security but which, for the Palestinians, is a severe encroachment on their freedom and economic viability. History does repeat itself. The Bethlehem story that Mary and Joseph knew was a story about homelessness, poverty, rejection, insensitive government intervention, terror, flight, exile, and even the shedding of innocent blood. That part of the Christmas story is being repeated today in our world in too many ways to count.

            At the heart of the Christmas story, of course, is a family and a birth, a birth that happened to ordinary people in the most ordinary of settings. But in the midst of the ordinariness of it all, something extraordinary, something beyond amazing happened as the God who created all things out of nothing, the maker of heaven and earth, quietly stole upon the stage of human history as a tiny, helpless child.

            The sheer wonder of all this has inspired some of the world’s greatest art – glorious paintings, frescoes, mosaics, stained glass, and beloved carols that we carry deep in our hearts and never tire of hearing or singing. And it is the sheer wonder of it all that for more than two-thousand years has brought people to their knees, people like you and me.

            And for all who kneel before the manger of Bethlehem, there is a new understanding of the two most basic of all realities: there is a new understanding of God, and a new understanding of humanity. Of God, because the face of this tiny child wrapped in swaddling clothes is a window onto God, the God who loves in ways we can’t really understand, the God who actually becomes one of his own creatures!

            And there is also a new understanding of humanity because the tiny face of the Christ child is like a mirror held up to each one of us. In that mirror we see reflected the meaning of our true human goodness and dignity, our true human worth. If ever we question our own worth (and who of us doesn’t at times?), the child of Bethlehem has the answer for us, for that child of the Bethlehem stable reveals not only the glory of God but our glory, too, the glory of each and every human person, bar none.

            One Christmas nearly 60 years ago when I was in Rome studying for the priesthood, I visited a church where, high above the altar was a splendid mosaic of Christ in glory. It was in the Byzantine style and quite magnificent: Jesus was seated on his throne in glory, sustaining the world with his right hand, serene, remote, totally timeless, far beyond this world of ours, someone for whom history was already over.

            And, then, far below this vision of splendor, right down on the dirty floor of the church, amid hay and straw and some scraggly trees, was the manger scene with the mother and father and the baby, tiny arms outstretched, looking so very vulnerable - especially when you compared it with the brilliant mosaic towering over it. There at the manger scene, history was not over and done with. Not by a long shot. History was still happening - messy and very much in mid-course, the answers not in “the back of the book” but still to be worked out.

            That memory sums up the Christmas story for me. The outcome, the blessed outcome, is assured. The story does have a happy ending. All will turn out well. But all will turn out well not because a serene and far-removed Providence is looking down from a lofty height having sorted it all out in advance. No, all will turn out well because God has gotten down on the floor with us, God has become one of us.

            My friends, because of that, because of Christmas, we can approach the manger just as we are, with all our complicated histories, our sins, our dreary compromises, our false starts.  Because of Christmas, we know that we are loved and accepted for who we are, not for who we wish we were. On the messy floor of the manger God embraces each of us, embraces our poor flesh and charges it with divinity!  charges us with divinity. No wonder we never tire of celebrating this and never will. Merry Christmas!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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Seattle, Washington  98104
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