Christmas in the Midst of Traffic
December 25, 2002
Christmas is here but life goes on much as it did before. This is day that we have been waiting for, yet issues of real concern in our world remain. Gifts have been bought and wrapped and in some cases, unwrapped. Food has been purchased and prepared and in some cases, already eaten. Despite all the things that you have had to do, you somehow, managed to get yourself and your family here tonight. (Looking pretty good, I might add.) But as we gather here tonight to sing songs of peace and joy, serious and disturbing issues continue in our world: the threat of terrorism, a faltering economy, preparations for war. In our personal life, we might be dealing with misunderstandings between our self and the person we are dating, tensions in our marriage, problems in our relationships. Christmas does not dispel the pain of sickness, the loss of someone that we have loved, or the fear for the future.
So once you have celebrated 20 Christmases, or 40 Christmases, or 60 Christmases, the pattern becomes rather clear. Christmas comes and goes and the world remains largely the way that it is. That can make us cynical. That can make us wonder whether we should believe that proclamation of the angel of “Good News of Great Joy. “ That can make us doubt whether we should place too much credence in the announcement of “Peace on Earth.” These doubts must be taken seriously. Therefore, the most valuable thing we can do tonight is to examine what we believe happened that first Christmas, and where we expect Christmas joy to be found.
A harried executive was running late for an important business meeting. The traffic was not helping either his schedule or his mood. He pulled to a stop at a light at one of the busiest intersections of the city and thought to himself, “I can beat the next light, if I can just get ahead of this crowd.” So he took his foot off the brake and put it on the accelerator, ready to floor it as soon as the light turned green. Then he saw something that made him hold his breath: a young couple, both of them blind, were making their way across the street. The young woman was holding a child and the man was using his white cane, tapping it on the pavement, as he directed his family across the intersection. To the executive’s horror, he realized that this family was veering diagonally out of the cross-walk and into the center of the intersection and the traffic. Unaware of the danger that surrounded them, this young family was moving directly into the on-coming cars. Then it happened: in a moment, the executive’s annoyance and fear changed to wonder as he saw what unfolded before his eyes. Each car, in every direction, came to a simultaneous stop. There was no beeping or honking of horns, no screeching of brakes, no scream or shout of “Get out of the way! Are you crazy?” All the cars just stopped and waited as this young family made their way safely across the intersection.
What happened in that intersection was a miracle. Not a miracle that defies the laws of nature, not a miracle that restored sight to that blind couple, not a miracle that removed all the selfishness and greed from the hearts of those who witnessed it. But a miracle by which patience and understanding became real in the hearts of many harried and distracted motorists. A miracle, by which a sense of unity and common concern emerged from so many vehicles, separated and isolated from one another. A miracle by which compassion and a respect for human life manifested itself in the midst of city traffic.
Now that miracle points to the miracle of Christmas, because what happened on that first Christmas was not that Christ came and changed the world, but that Christ entered our broken and divided world. Christ did not come and destroy all evil, but came to became one of us. And Christ is now able to stand with us as we face the evil that remains. This is why we should not become discouraged when we see how much is wrong with the world and troublesome in our own life. The troubles of life are not a distraction from Christmas. They are the necessary human context in which the meaning of Christmas becomes clear.
We are the people who gather here tonight and believe that despite all the turmoil in the world and issues in our own life, God is with us, Emmanuel! And if God has become human and is with us, then there is always reason for courage, always reason for hope, even reason for joy. We are the people who believe that compassion and peace and love can suddenly emerge even in the presence of trouble, even in the presence of grief, even in the midst of a busy intersection.
Yes, life goes on much as it did before but what we celebrate tonight is the truth that the world has indeed changed. It is changed because God has become human. God has become part of the world, the real world, the world in which we live. This explains why even in a broken world, we can still honestly sing songs of joy and peace. This justifies why even in a world where there is so much that is wrong, we still can, without fear, wish each other a Merry Christmas!
Everybody Loves Christmas
December 25, 2005
Everybody loves Christmas. But the deepest joy of Christmas is reserved to those who believe. Everyone loves Christmas, and what’s not to love? Above all other seasons, it is at this time that we try to be our best selves. In this time, we try to appreciate family and friends. In this time we try to give generously to the poor. In this season, we try to be better people. In this season we dare to dream that our relationships can be healed, that our brokenness can be repaired. These are the days in which we feed our yearning for a world at peace.
This optimistic hope is captured beautifully by many of the modern Christmas carols. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” reminds us of the importance of family and the necessity for relationships in our lives. “Christmas Is for Children” brings us into touch with our own childhood memories of Christmas and motivates us to build a world in which our children and grandchildren might live in safety and grow to their potential. “The Little Drummer Boy” reminds us that each of us has a gift, and if we are willing to give our gift, to give the best that we have, we can find love and acceptance. All of these beautiful truths about relationships, about memory, about life are a genuine part of Christmas. We do well to celebrate them.
But there is a deeper joy in Christmas, a deeper truth that only the eyes of faith can see. Since we are gathered here on this Christmas night in this holy place, I certainly would be negligent were I not to try to point out that deeper truth to you.
The truth is this: Christmas is not so much about our love for one another, but God’s love for us. Christmas is not only about our dreams for the future, but what God has promised to do for us as our lives unfold. Christmas is not really about the gift that we give to God, but the gift that God has given to us. In other words, Christmas is about God’s action, God’s initiative. It is celebrating the awesome truth that God so loved the world that God chose to enter the world and enter our lives. This God promises to walk with us leading us to eternal life.
This is the deeper joy of Christmas. But to see that joy requires faith. There is a big difference between those who have faith and those who do not. Those who are gifted with faith can go deeper into Christmas. Now I certainly hope that all of us gathered here this evening will be able to see the beauty and the innocence in our children and in our grandchildren throughout this holiday season. I hope we will be warmed by their love in our lives. But those who have faith can go deeper. For they can see in that innocence and beauty the sign of a God who loves them so much as to give them the people in their lives.
I know that there are some here today who during the past year have escaped a harmful situation, an addiction, a serious illness, a broken relationship. I hope that anyone who has escaped such harmful situations will be thankful that their lives have gone in that direction. I trust they will look forward to a positive new year. But those who have faith can go deeper. They can see in their escape from harmful situations a Savior, a God who has come into their life to lead them from death to a new beginning.
I know there are some here tonight have recently experienced a loss, a loss from death or divorce or rejection. I hope that they will find the strength to see what is still positive in their lives, to claim the people who still love and support them. But those who have faith can go deeper. For they will know that they are not alone, that there is a God who loves them enough to be with them, to heal the hurts they cannot heal themselves, to walk with them in their pain.
Everybody loves Christmas. What’s not to love? But the eyes of faith can see more. For the truth is that Christmas is really not about us, but about God. It is not about what we do, but what God has done and promises to do in our lives. So if you have come here tonight with a faith which allows you to see God’s presence in your life, make sure you go deeper in this holy season. Push beyond the joys and beauties that surround you and see beneath them a God who loves you and who will never stop loving you.
If you have come here today without faith, or with a faith that is weak, if you have come this evening because someone in your family or a friend has brought you, or because of tradition, or because of a faith you once had, then please know that you are welcome here. If this liturgy can increase or deepen your celebration, take it with all of our love. But know as well that my prayer and the prayer of this community is that you might come to know a deeper joy of Christmas, a joy which is available to you. If you feel any stirring in your heart, any desire for that deeper joy, then do not worry about whatever doubts or whatever questions you may have. Just keep your heart open. The good news that we celebrate this night is that God is real and that God loves you. And since God is real and God loves you, you do not need to find the way to God—because God will find the way to you.
The Gift of the Magi
December 25, 2008
There are many Christmas stories. There is Scrooge and the Grinch and Rudolph and Frosty and, of course, the Little Drummer Boy. But one of my favorites is a short story by an American writer, O. Henry. It is called “The Gift of the Magi.” Now this story has been around for awhile. I remember reading it as a sophomore in high school. Many of you know it. But give me just a minute to refresh your memory.
It is a story about a young married couple, in their twenties, Jim and Della. They were very much in love, and they were very poor. The story begins on the day before Christmas with Della weeping, because she has no money with which to buy Jim’s Christmas present. She wants to buy him something wonderful. Then she has an idea. Her most valuable possession was her hair. It was lustrous and long, falling down to her waist. She realized that she could cut her hair and sell it to a wigmaker for money. She could then use the money to buy Jim’s Christmas present. That was exactly what she did. She took the money and purchased a very expensive platinum chain for Jim’s most valuable possession which was his pocket watch. She was somewhat worried about how he would react to her altered condition without her hair, but she combed back the little she had left and waited for him to return from work.
As he entered the small and poorly heated apartment, he was shocked. “Della,” he said, “your hair!” “Don’t get angry at me,” she said. “I cut it off and sold it to buy your Christmas present. It will grow back.” “But, Della, your hair!” “What’s the matter? Don’t you love me without my hair?” “Of course I do,” he said. He gave her a tender kiss. “But it does complicate your Christmas present.” And he handed her a small box. When she opened it, she squealed with delight. But then began to sob. The present that Jim bought her was a set of tortoise shell hair combs, which she could use to put up her glorious hair—the hair she no longer had. “They’re wonderful, Jim,” said Della, “and don’t worry. My hair will grow back. But look. Look what I bought for you for Christmas.” And with that, she held out the platinum watch chain. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Well, quick, Jim. Take out your watch so we can see how they go together.” “I can’t do that,” said Jim, “because I sold my watch to buy the combs for your hair.”
O. Henry ends the story by saying, of all those who gave gifts that Christmas, the gift that this couple gave one another was the best. Of course, on one level it was a disaster, because they both received gifts that they could not use: hair combs for a woman without hair and a watch chain for a man with no watch. But on a deeper level, their gift exchange was the greatest of successes, because they gave to one another their most valuable possession. And that, of course, was the greatest gift of all.
Now this simple story points to a truth which I think we should all appreciate this Christmas. It is a strange truth, but an important one. It is this: the less that we have, the more we are able to give. When we give out of our abundance, out of our wealth, we can give expensive things. But they are really not that valuable. But when we give out of our poverty, then our gift is extremely valuable, because it makes the love with which we give so clear.
This truth is certainly reflected in today’s gospel. Mary and Joseph very much wanted to have more to give their newborn son: a safe home, a clean bed. But what they had was a stable and a manger. And yet the poverty of their condition made their love for the child even clearer. It was with that love that they welcomed into our world the Savior. The less we have, the more we can give. It is the secret of Christmas to recognize the value that only want can offer.
Over the last few weeks I’ve talked to a number of families who told me that, because of the economic conditions, they were giving less gifts and smaller gifts this Christmas. But I hope that all of us recognize that less gifts does not mean less Christmas. The less we have, the clearer we can see, because we can recognize the love from which the gift comes. Therefore, it is my prayer for you this Christmas that you will be able to recognize how the most valuable gifts are the ones which are the hardest to give.
What might those gifts look like? Here are some examples. Laughter is a very difficult gift to give for someone who is grieving, for someone who has lost a loved one in death or tragedy. But that is what makes laughter such a wonderful gift to give and to receive. Kindness is a particularly difficult gift to offer to someone who has hurt us. But that is why the gift of kindness is so precious when it is offered and accepted in even a single word or gesture. Hope is so hard to muster when there is fear, fear about sickness or the future economic situation. But that is what makes even a single ounce of hope the best possible gift of all.
The less we have, the more we can give. The harder a gift is to give, the more valuable it is. All of us will give and receive many gifts this season. But I ask you not to measure them by the totals on your credit card. Measure them instead by the love that offers them. After all, it was through a child born in poverty that our salvation entered the world. And every gift given in poverty mirrors the quality of Christ’s love. The less we have, the easier it is to see the love. So look for love this Christmas. Look for it in the gifts that you give and in the gifts that you receive. And have a priceless Christmas.
December 25, 2011
Each year at Christmastime I remember with gratitude an opportunity that I had while I was studying in Europe in the 1980s. I was able to travel to Israel and visit the city of Bethlehem.
To travel in Israel an official guide is required. We had a particularly good one on this trip. As he brought us to the Church of the Nativity, he explained its history. It was built by the Emperor Justinian 1500 years ago over a cave where tradition says that Christ was born. He showed us how the door to the church was purposely made to be only four feet high, so that everyone who came to the church would be forced to bow as they entered. Then, he brought us to the most sacred part of the church, the grotto located underneath the altar. This was the place where tradition says Christ was born. On the marble floor of the grotto is a fourteen-point silver star that marks the spot where Mary first laid her newborn son.
Because the grotto is small, you have to wait in line to enter. You wait in a darkened corridor for people to exit so there will be room for others to go in. As I was waiting in that corridor, I had a rather clear view of what was going on inside the grotto. It was a bustle of activity. People were moving everywhere examining the inscriptions and the mosaics on the walls. Flashes were going off. Video-cameras were whirling. People were posing for pictures with their family and friends, many of them pointing to the star on the floor. There was even a group of Germans in the corner singing Christmas carols.
But right in the center of the grotto, I could see a woman in her 20s. She was kneeling on the floor before the star, perfectly still. Her eyes were closed, her head was bowed. Her demeanor set her in stark contrast to all the activity bustling around her. I turned to the guide who was standing next to me and pointed her out. He nodded. He said, “The people inside are tourists. This woman is a pilgrim.”
My prayer for all of us is that we would celebrate this Christmas not as tourists but as pilgrims. And what is a pilgrim? There are two possible definitions, and both of them apply. The first definition is “a pilgrim is one who journeys to a holy place.” I would invite all of you to journey this Christmas ready to see the holiness in your life. We should be able to see more than the surface things which tourists can photograph. Christmas is more than placing food on the table, opening presents, taking photographs of family and friends. There is in all that we have and in all that we are a deep abiding holiness which comes from the hand of God. Be sure to see that holiness in the bounty of your table, in the wonder of your children, in the warmth of family and friends who gather. Be sure to see the holiness in your lives and, as pilgrims, give thanks to God.
The second definition of the pilgrim is equally important. It defines a pilgrim as “one who journeys in a foreign land.” There are many people this Christmas who find themselves journeying in new and sometimes difficult places. We should remember the men and women serving in our armed forces. We should remember all people in the world who are displaced by war and famine. We should remember immigrants who are separated from their families. We should remember those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, dealing with the estrangement of divorce, struggling with economic hardship that comes from unemployment. All of these people are pilgrims, forced to journey away from what is normal. If you are one of them, remember that, like all pilgrims, you are still able to find holiness in your circumstances. The very Christmas story makes this clear. For Mary and Joseph had to journey from their home, from their place of comfort, and give birth to their son in a strange place, indeed, even in a manger.
All of us, regardless of our circumstances, are called to celebrate this Christmas as pilgrims. If we are fortunate enough to look forward to rich meals and warm relationships with family and friends, be sure to see the holiness that is present in all of those gifts. If we are forced to be pilgrims travelling in strange and difficult places, remember that the child whose birth we celebrate was himself born in a foreign city and therefore made holy all who are displaced. Thousands of people will gather in Bethlehem this weekend. But you do not need to go to Bethlehem to be a pilgrim. Let us all, regardless of our circumstances, come to the manger and, with faith, worship the newborn King.
A Sign for You
December 25, 2014
On May 25th of this year, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Manger Square in Bethlehem. The gospel for that Mass was the same gospel we have just heard, Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. The Pope, of course, preached on that gospel. Pope Francis is not only a holy man. He is an excellent homilist. And so I hope you will not mind if I borrow the theme that he used this May as the basis of my Christmas homily.
The Pope used an approach that I sometime use myself. Instead of preaching on the entire passage, he simply focused on one line. It was the line the angels spoke to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child.” The Holy Father asked in what way is a child a sign for us, and he moved immediately from the Christ Child to the children of our world. The Pope was suggesting that God became a child so that we could appreciate the sign value of children, that we would not miss what the lives of children are saying to us. So what do the lives of children say to us? Two things, one positive and one negative.
In a positive way, children are a sign of hope. Children exhaust us and at times they frustrate us, but their innocence and their newness are a sign that there is a future for our world. Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles know this truth. How often have we been caught up in our own issues and problems only to find that the word, the question, or the hug of a child in our family gives us new energy and joy. Children are a sign of God’s presence. We press forward in life for them and because of them. Children are the sign that God is with us.
But there is another way children are a sign, and this sign is troubling. Pope Francis says that children are a diagnostic sign. They are a marker that indicates the health of our families, of our societies, and of our world. So how is our world doing? The lives of children tell us that we have a long way to go. Millions of children are living on the margins of our society without adequate food or shelter. Children are often the objects of human trafficking and slave labor, producing products that at times show up in the stores in which we shop. Children are coerced to become child soldiers and to engage in violence. Thousands of children’s lives languish in refugee camps throughout our world. Children regularly die of diseases for which we have a cure. Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. Some of their lives are ended before they are born. Those who are born bear the brunt of our selfishness, hatred and greed. Pope Francis says that the children of our world are crying, and their cry is the cry of the infant Jesus, crying out for food, for security, for justice. We cannot adequately celebrate Christ’s birth if we do not hear the cries of the children around us.
“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child.” On this Christmas day, we should appreciate the sign that God has given us. As we see the Christ Child in the manger or sitting comfortably on his mother’s lap, we should remember what he is telling us. He is telling us first of all to treasure our own children and to see them as signs of hope and love. He is also telling us that we cannot rest until more children in our world are loved and until all children have reason to hope.
The Christmas Barber
December 25, 2017
Wyatt Lafrenière is a six-year-old boy who lives in Quebec, Canada. Wyatt is autistic. Because of this, it is difficult for Wyatt to stay still, and he is hyper-sensitive to being touched. Even the simple task of getting a haircut is a next-to-impossible ordeal. So Wyatt’s mother was grateful to find Franz Jacob, a barber who caters to autistic clients. When Franz plans to give Wyatt a haircut, he schedules the appointment at the end of the day so that he has as much time as he needs. It often takes an hour and a half. He closes his shop because he knows that things must be quiet. He likes to start by playing a game with Wyatt or sharing some candy. Franz says, “If I can get him to smile, that builds trust, and things go much easier.”
As the haircut begins Wyatt often starts wandering around the shop. Franz follows him, speaking softly and carrying his scissors. If Wyatt sits down on the floor, Franz gets down on his hands and knees and crawls over to the boy, ready to make a clip or two. If Wyatt lies down on his stomach with some toy, Franz will lie down next to him and wait patiently until he can reach over gently and catch a tuft of Wyatt’s hair in his shears. “The secret to success,” says Franz, “is for me to realize that Wyatt will not conform to me. I must conform to him. I need to follow him, adapting to his movements and his moods. That is the only way to give Wyatt a haircut.”
Now the story of the barber and his client is an appropriate one for us today on Christmas. What we celebrate today is not simply the birth of a child, or even as the angels tell the shepherds “the gift of a savior.” It is in fact the gift of a savior who chooses to be human like us. The great mystery that we celebrate today is the mystery of the incarnation, a mystery that tells us that our almighty God chose to take up human flesh and become like us in all things but sin. Like the barber in my story, God did not wait for us to adapt to God. God chose to adapt to us, to take up our frail human nature and to make it God’s own.
The good news that comes from this profound mystery is that God knows every graced human experience personally. The importance of family, the joy of friends, and the beauty of living are aspects of life that God sees with human eyes. Worries about the future, doubts and indecision, the reality of pain are truths that God feels with a human heart. Hope for the future, the willingness to serve, and the desire to be loved are experiences that God understands with a human soul.
Most importantly the power of the incarnation is not limited to the day of Jesus’ birth. What the incarnation reveals is the way that God deals with us always. So as we gather together with family and friends over the next few days, we should remember that God gathers with us, joining in the memories, the stories, and the love that humans share. If you are troubled by some family issue, some conflict at work, or a personal failure, know that God comes down on hands and knees and crawls next to you to give you support and grace. If you are devastated by a failure in a relationship, the betrayal of a friend, or the loss of a loved one, and you lie flattened by grief and hopelessness. Believe that God will lie down next to you and wait for the moment to reach over gently and touch your pain.
The birth of Jesus reveals that God is willing to adapt to us, to follow our movements and our moods through the twists and turns of our lives. The joy of the gospel does not flow from our efforts to conform to God, but from God’s choice to conform to us.
December 25, 2020
Welcome to COVID Christmas! It’s not the Christmas we want. We want a Christmas where we can gather with family and friends, with hugs and kisses, where we can sing joyous songs without fear. But that is not the Christmas that 2020 has provided. This year our Christmas is difficult, disappointing, and dangerous. But that is nothing new. Christmas was that way from the beginning.
Today I invite you to overhear three conversations that took place over two thousand years ago. All are between Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first of these conversations takes place in Nazareth. “Mary, you better sit down, I have some bad news.” “What is it, Joseph?” “We have to go to Bethlehem.” “Bethlehem? Why would we go to Bethlehem?” “It is the emperor. He wants us to register in our own towns and Bethlehem is mine.” “But Joseph, Bethlehem is ninety miles away! Can we rent a donkey?” “Mary, you know we cannot afford a donkey. We will have to walk.” “Joseph, I am due any day now.” “I know, I know. Honey, we’ll take it slow.”
The second conversation takes place in Bethlehem. “Mary, take a deep breath, I have some bad news.” “Now what? I just need to rest.” “Well, I think we walked too slow. The guest room that I reserved has been taken and we can’t stay there.” “Then where will we stay, Joseph?” “Well. . . if you just look in here…” “Oh no, Joseph, this is a barn. There are animals. It is dirty. It stinks. You want me to have a baby here?” “It’s better than outside in the cold.” “Joseph, I can’t believe this is happening to us.” “I know, Honey, I know. Let me get you some clean hay.”
The third conversation takes place in Bethlehem several weeks later. “Mary, brace yourself, I have more bad news.” “Not again!” “Yes, we need to go to Egypt.” “Egypt? Joseph, that is another forty miles and now we have a baby.” “But the baby is the reason. He is in danger from Herod.” “Then Joseph we have to go at once. But still no donkey?” “No donkey, but Honey, again, we’ll take it slow.”
From the start, Christmas has been difficult, disappointing and dangerous. This is because what we celebrate today is that Jesus became one of us, and the human condition is never perfect. Yet, Jesus was born. Jesus was loved. And Jesus went on to become the Savior of the world.
So before we begin to lament that this is not the Christmas that we want, let’s remember that 2020 has made us a part of a long Christmas tradition. Despite the fact that our Christmas is difficult, disappointing and dangerous, we are here. We are loved. And with God’s grace we will become even better witnesses to Christ in the years ahead. That is worth celebrating.