Monday, December 24, 2012

Pay attention or you'll never learn the story of Christmas

HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, December 24, 2012:
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I don’t know how many of you read the comic strip, Family Circus, but I’m a fan. A few years ago, there was a great Christmas scene. In it, the young girl, Dolly, was sharing with her two young brothers the story of Christmas.  Here is how she recounted it, “Mary and Joseph were camping out under a star in the East…It was a Silent Night in Bethlehem until the angels began to sing…then Santa brought Baby Jesus in his sleight and laid Him in a manger… Chestnuts were roasting by an open fire and not a creature was stirring…so the Grinch stole some swaddling clothes from the Scrooge – who was one of the three wise men riding on eight tiny reindeer.”  And then Dolly says to her brother, “Pay attention, Jeffy, or you’ll never learn the story of Christmas!”

Although Dolly got the details a bit mixed up, she’s right – if we don’t pay attention we might just miss the real story of Christmas.   Certain media outlets at this time always like to talk about the War on Christmas.  Their coverage usually focuses on things like towns who no longer place a nativity on the public square or stores that won’t allow their employees to say “Merry Christmas” choosing something more generic like “Happy Holidays.”  And, although this perceived War on Christmas itself has become somewhat of a tradition, for me, ultimately it is a distraction. 

I think the real war on Christmas has less to do with public greetings and more to do with the ways in which we lose our focus and become more attentive to the worldly and materialistic details of this day – parties, presents, food and drink. I read a poll in the newspaper yesterday that said for 53% of people, there is no religious dimension to their celebration of Christmas.  They won’t go to church or services and Christ isn’t really a part of this day for them. But, just as Dolly warned, it can become to easy for us to miss the point of what we celebrate today.  Our Savior didn’t enter our world hidden under the form of a precious, innocent, helpless little child so that we could be a people of excess. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but this year feels like a different Christmas to me.  In the wake of what happened in Newtown just over a week ago, we’ve been reminded once again what Christmas is really about – it is about the preciousness of that little child; it is about a child who breaks into the darkness of our world and reminds us that we can be different; that we can be better; that we can be holy.  It’s about a God who wants to be near us in our sorrows and tragedies; who wants to lift us up to better possibilities. It’s about a God who loves us so much that He becomes one of us in the most tender and precious form possible – a little baby in that quiet manger on a silent night in that little town of Bethlehem.  This might be the first true Christmas we’ve celebrated in a long time – so completely focused on the preciousness of the Christ Child and what His entrance into our world means for each of us.

Children have such a wonderful power to shape the beauty of this holy day.  Perhaps most famously, in 1897, a young Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun: “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

We all know the heart of the response, “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus,” but let me share the rest of what Editor Francis Church wrote:  “Virginia, he wrote, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see….Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

“Not believe in Santa Claus! You might get your papa to have men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see…Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

My brothers and sisters, we find ourselves tonight in a world desperately in need of belief in God, belief in Christ, belief in peace, belief in the power to heal, forgive, reconcile, and transform our world; desperately in need of the true story and meaning of Christmas.  We find ourselves in a world like that of 1897, “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.” Our world acts as though there is no Jesus. But, we, you and I, here tonight, can change that.  Just as Virginia asked the question at the heart of the matter, we too must ask in our hearts, “Tell me, is there a Jesus who can heal and save us, who can bring peace, love and joy to our world?”  And we must answer, like Mr. Church, “Yes, good people, there is a Jesus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Christ!” We live in a world that needs the true story of Christmas more now than ever before.

My brothers and sisters, O come, let us adore Him!  Let us be renewed by God’s love for us!  Let us open our hearts to this this precious, beautiful little Child who has come to be with us, to comfort us, to lead us, save us!  Let us be the truth of Christmas in our world.

Merry Christmas and may the Lord give you peace.

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