I would first like to extend my prayers that you will have a happy and a blessed Christmas. I speak not only for myself, but for Monsignor LoPinto and Father Gribowich. This is a still a blessed and wonderful time of year, however difficult it may be this particular year. I remember my parents telling me about what Christmas was like during the Second World War. My father was off in Europe fighting, and my mom was at home, and I now understand if the Christmas song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was sung, my parents would kind of hold hands and almost tear up. So for those of you us who are not being able to see our families this season, let us remember that the Church is a family because of what we celebrate here today. Jesus has truly made us brothers and sisters, and it is also good to see so many and hear so many familiar things at Christmastime. We have the hymns so beautifully sung and played by our our music ministry. We have the altar wonderfully decorated. We see the creche and all the symbols within and it does give us a sense that this too shall pass. There’s something more permanent.
But and among the people, or the groups that we see at this time, are the shepherds. Shepherds are a very important part of the stories of Jesus’ birth. They receive a special invitation by angels to meet Jesus, yet but they disappear from history immediately afterwards. They do not appear in the Gospels again. Luke does not have even one of them encounter Jesus or the Apostles at any time or place even in the Acts of the Apostles. There are no – as far as I can tell – legends about them. Despite their powerful introduction to Jesus, why did they simply vanish? Luke’s answer is simple: they did not ponder.
Mary did, and we are asked today if we will.
We find Mary a mere child caught up in history. She has just given birth far away from home and family because of an edict from distant Rome about a census. Yet she will be a passive handmaid only to God and seeks to find her place in the new reality she is bringing into being. If Mary just bore Jesus and went no further, she would have been cast into the same oblivion as the shepherds. She is remembered because she is a disciple – an active follower of Jesus –and the shepherds are forgotten because they were not.
Mary opened her heart to Jesus. When we first met her in Nazareth, her response to the angel’s greeting was to ponder what sort of greeting this might be. This Sunday we will read Mary’s meeting with Simeon the prophet in the Temple and he will tell her that a sword will pierce her heart. This is a Semitic way of saying that she too will be tested “so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”. Also, after returning to Nazareth, having found Jesus in the Temple, a very bewildered Mary “kept all these things in her heart”. She indeed would be tested in ways she could not understand at that time, but she developed an interior life and was like well-prepared ground that could produce a hundred-fold. The birth of Jesus became part of her. She took this inside her heart, but it stayed outside of the shepherds’ hearts, a memory soon forgotten.
We have been tested this year. Did we ponder who Jesus is and what this means? Pondering revealed for me the importance and true meaning of many doctrines and teachings of the church. I certainly knew their definitions, but this year they made the journey from the head to the heart.
Let us look at three:
The common good: We are told that our actions must be directed to the good of all. This is difficult for people of the Global North. We often see ourselves as independent sub-contractors who negotiate commitments. Freedom is the ability to choose what I will do. During the year of COVID, we have seen that some people believe that wearing a mask, social distancing, or frequent hand washing violates their freedom. We have experienced the consequences. Without a sense of the good of all our entire social life deteriorates. Will we learn from this? The most obvious example is climate change and its effects from polar bears who cannot find ice to people living in coastal areas who will be washed away at high tides. Has the sword pieced our hearts that we see that I cannot have the good life if others are deprived of the simple goods of life?
Fraternity. Would you and Jesus agree who are our brothers and sisters? I often ask myself if I see the same number of people in a room as Jesus does. This has been made more poignant by this year’s revelation that the people we really need are those who pick up our refuse, deliver our food and most critically care for us when we are ill were previously often invisible. We have called them essential, but do we see them as deserving essential services themselves? A core principle of the Church’s social teaching is that health care is not a civil right but a human one. At the very least has this experience taught us that we need to provide health care for everyone. We need to ponder how this can be most humanly accomplished; the church tells us where we must go not how we are to get there. Pope Francis in his book on the post-COVID world, “Let Us Dream”, tells us that “fraternity is the new frontier”.
Universal call to holiness: All disciples are called to be holy. To be real, holiness must be concrete and practical. It needs to build up our community. This year has required that we look at community in an unusual way. Catholicism is a hands-on religion and, for the common good, we could not touch each other. Many parishes, of which thank God we are one, had many people who could envision other ways of community building. This included the very basics such as streaming the Masses, but also opportunities for developing community, including creating and leading an online rosary to a weekly theological book club. Our religious education programs for youth remain robust and for adults better than before the pandemic. This is because of the outpouring of talent shown by the parish. I would also note that this has not only been technical but imaginative as well. I simply did not see possibilities for creating real community by virtual means. Thank God others did, and I wish to note that although these were developed by younger people in the Parish it has been, we of a certain age who have used them. Holiness shared is holiness squared.
This is unlike any Christmas homily I have ever given for this is unlike any Christmas I have ever lived. May there never be a repeat.
Yet Christmas has been celebrated during war and depression and it did not change the blunt reality of the Incarnation. For no matter what the external situation, the ultimate reality is that God is with us. God will accompany us and following him like Mary will reveal the world as it is. Let us ponder with Mary what we have been shown and the opportunities we have been offered. It may not be a year for much Christmas cheer, but if we remember what we are celebrating, always a time for Christian joy.