Saturday, December 24, 2016

Dec. 25, 2016: Christmas

Dec. 25, 2016: Christmas

Recently at a mass at the nursing home, I asked the residents, “What is the best Christmas gift you ever received?” Many in attendance at that mass struggle with short-term memory loss, but their long-term memory is still very much intact. One elderly man said, “The best Christmas gift I ever received was on the Christmas Eve when I was stationed in Vietnam during the war. We had been fighting all year, and the noise of guns and bombs were constant. On that particular Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it was completely silent everywhere. There was peace. I wish we could have that kind of peace everyday and everywhere.” Several ladies in the room chimed in and said, “Family. Family is the best gift of Christmas.” Do you agree with that answer?

As I look out at this congregation, what I see are families gathered together. Perhaps your family gathers frequently during the year. For some families, this is one of the rare opportunities when everyone makes an effort to be together as a family. And for some families, this is a difficult time, for they may have experienced a loss in the family, dealing with a serious illness or not gathering because of a division in the family. Whatever situation your family is going through, all of us are drawn this day to witness the birth of an extraordinary family.

Christmas is a celebration, a celebration of the birth of this special family which took place in a humble cave in Bethlehem with the birth of baby Jesus. It is there in that love of Mary and Joseph a gift is given from the Heavenly Father--a child who is the God made man. On this day, we ponder this greatest gift that a human family has ever received.

The Christ Child brings together all humanity just as he brought Magi from foreign land and lowly shepherds to the cave of Bethlehem. For us today, Jesus brings the generations together. Look around us, we have parents, grandparents, great grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles all together. Jesus is the source of that love that unites families and people, overcoming all mistrust, all isolation, every distance. Do we believe this? Perhaps in your mind you may be thinking that you’re here because of family or liturgical obligation. Yet, if you look deep in your heart, you were pulled here like the Magi who were following the unknown star in the sky. Your heart wants something more than what’s transitory that the world has to offer. You are looking for that which only God can fulfill.

One family shared how they try to put Jesus as the center in their Christmas celebration. “After Christmas Eve midnight Mass, our family would gather around the Nativity Scene.  The youngest member of the family would place the Christ Child in the crib while my father would recite a prayer from the heart.  Then, one of the older children would read the Christmas Story (the Christmas Gospel), interrupted occasionally by the singing of Christmas carols.  Afterwards, a few more carols would add to the recollection of the Sacred Event.  As the oldest, I remember standing in front of my dad, his warm hands resting on my shoulders, pressing me close, with tears welling up in his eyes.  When I recall this special moment, it still sends holy shivers through my body.  All during the Christmas Season, the Crib became a little family shrine, where morning and evening prayers were recited together as a family.”

When parents and children breathe together this climate of faith, with Jesus as the center of their lives, they receive grace that allows them to confront difficult trials. As a priest, I’ve stood in the midst of various family tragedies. I can usually tell which families have strong faith, and which ones do not. The tragedies are equally difficult, but how the family perseveres together through the tragedy is different--for some, their bonds become stronger. For others, their family falls apart.  It is the Eucharist that gives each of us strength because our hearts become the crib of Bethlehem where the Christ Child rests. Through the devotion to the Eucharist, through prayer, and through gathering together we grow in the love of Christ that dispels fear, sadness, and doubt. It is our faith in Christ that will bring us safely through everything we encounter, including death.

There was one resident at the nursing home who had the difficulty responding to the question, “What is the greatest gift you received at Christmas?” However after communion, it became quite evident what was her greatest gift. She began to sing a song which she learned as a child in church. It is also the song that captures our hopes and confidence why we gather as Church family on this holy day of the birth of Our Lord.

O Lord, I am not worthy
That Thou should'st come to me,
But speak the words of comfort,
My spirit healed shall be.

I'm longing to receive thee,
The Bridegroom of my soul,
No more by sin to grieve thee,
Or fly thy sweet control.

O Lord, thou art all holy,
The angels thee adore;
How, then, ought I sincerely
My wrongs and sins deplore!

I wish each of you and your precious family a very happy celebration of the most holy birth of the Child Jesus. May the Christ Child who comes to us in Eucharist, touch those who encounter us and make them feel home. May those whom we counter recognize the heart of child Jesus in us; may we be His love and peace to them.

Click to hear Angels We Have Heard on High