Looking for Christmas
December 21, 2003
I called a friend this week on his cell phone and when he answered I could tell by the background noise that he was not at home. “Where are you?” “At the mall,” he said. “Oh, you’re probably doing your Christmas shopping.” “No,” he said, “I’m here looking—looking for Christmas.” This threw me and so I asked him, “What do you mean, you’re looking for Christmas?” My friend explained: “You see when I was a child, Christmas just happened. The anticipation, the excitement, the mystery were all immediate. All through December, the feelings, the rush, the thrill kept building until Christmas morning. It was magic. But now that I am an adult and my own children are grown, it’s different. Today I realized that it’s only a few days from Christmas and as yet I have felt nothing; no anticipating, no excitement, no wonder. So, I took off a few hours and I came here to the mall just to look and to try to see if I could find something to ignite that excitement. I hate to admit it, but this Christmas I’m out looking for Christmas.”
It is only a few days until Christmas. How is it for you? Are you finding yourself excited, involved, engaged in the wonder of these upcoming days; or are you going through the routine. If you find that you lack magic of the season, do you think it makes sense to go out and look for Christmas? That is an important question and the answer to it depends on what you think you are looking for. Because in one sense looking for Christmas is foolish, but in another it is not only wise, but necessary.
If what you are looking for is your childhood, those simple days when Christmas happened like a force of nature, then looking is a waste of time. We cannot live our lives backwards. We cannot become children again. We are adults, with adult responsibility and experiences. Our lives are complex and busy. We cannot experience Christmas with the simplicity of a child in which the thrill of the holiday overrides everything else.
Yet—even though it is useless to go out looking for our childhood, the child within us can still help us look for Christmas. I say this because the one thing that is certain about children at Christmas is that they believe. They believe that the gifts will arrive. They believe that their family will be together. They believe that Christmas morning will be wonderful. It is that childlike faith that we can imitate even as adults.
What then is our faith? What do we as adults believe? Let me remind you. We believe that God has made us and given us the Son as our Savior. We believe that God loves us and is always working to bring life out of death and light out of darkness. We believe that God is a present force in our life and that whatever we have to face, whatever we have to deal with, God is always seeking to bless us and to give us joy. With that faith we can celebrate Christmas even if we are dealing with sickness or grief or problems in our family. Because even in those circumstances we believe that God is still looking for an opportunity to touch us and to give us peace. In faith, even though our lives are complex and busy, we believe that it only takes a moment for God to seize us and give us joy.
That moment might come in a chance conversation with a stranger in the mall. It might happen in a glance of gratitude that someone gives us because of our generosity. It can surprise us in sudden laughter that interrupts a long illness or struggle. It can emerge in an intimate touch from a faithful spouse. Like Mary and Elizabeth in today’s Gospel, that moment can be as simple as a meeting of old friends who recount what has happened in their lives and how God has blessed them.
For children Christmas is a month-long crescendo building to a dramatic climax on Christmas morning. But, for most of us adults, our lives are too complex to sustain that kind of celebration. Fortunately all adults need is a moment, a moment in which the truth breaks through, a moment in which we remember again that God is real, that we are loved, that life is good. Such a moment could happen today, or Christmas morning, or two weeks from now. But whenever it happens, whenever God’s love breaks through, it is then that Christmas will arrive.
Now we all enjoy the traditions of the season. It would be beautiful if all the shopping and baking and planning and customs would pull together in a harmonious build up to a dramatic climax this Thursday morning. But adults know that Christmas is deeper than all those things; deeper than Santa, deeper than gifts, deeper than Christmas morning. Christmas is whenever the love of God breaks through and touches our lives.
So, if you have not yet caught the Christmas spirit, if you are not filled with holiday excitement, do not be afraid to go out and look for Christmas. Now you know what you’re looking for.
What Mary Put First
December 24, 2006
Luke 1:39 – 45
Mary had plenty to do. In fact, when you consider the recent events that had just occurred in her life, to say that she had to address a number of loose ends would be a major understatement. She had just been told by an angel that she was going to have a baby, and with that announcement a whole new set of responsibilities had been placed on her plate. She would have to find a way of telling Joseph the news, and she certainly worried about his response. She had to face the issues of her physical health as a pregnant mother. She had to plan for the coming of the child, where he would sleep, what he would wear, and how he would impact the normal functioning of the home. Like every new mother Mary was filled with new questions, new responsibilities and new fears.
This is what makes today’s gospel so remarkable. Because with all the issues Mary had to address, the last thing she needed was a journey to some Judean town in the hill country. But that is exactly what Mary decided to do. She chose to go out and visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary could have found all kinds of excuses from making this trip: “I should not travel if I am pregnant. This is not the best weather for a journey in the mountains. Elizabeth has her own family to support her and certainly she would understand if I stayed at home.” Many good excuses, but Mary chose to follow none of them. For Mary the primary thing was the people in her life. If her cousin was bearing new life, it was appropriate that the two should be together to celebrate that gift from God.
This story of the visitation not only gives us information about Mary and Elizabeth, but it also gives us an example of how we are to live. This story reminds us of the importance of taking time to recognize and appreciate the people in our lives. We need this lesson this weekend more than ever. For this coming weekend we celebrate Christmas. Now I presume that most of you are ready or close to ready. Most of the gifts have been bought and perhaps wrapped. The menus are set. The schedules have been verified with those who will participate. Cards have been written. Phone calls have been made. Everything is in its place, and all that is required now is to execute the plan. This gospel reminds us that as we carry out the plans for our Christmas celebrations we should not forget the people. With all the attention we give to the gifts, and the food and the traditions, it is easy to leave the people behind. We can become so preoccupied with the details of hospitality that we forget to recognize and to spend time with the people who we love. What a waste that would be. What a terrible distortion of the feast that we celebrate. Because all the things we do, all the traditions we follow are for the sake of the people we love.
With all that she had to do, with all that was on her mind, Mary found time to be with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary knew that nothing was more important than her and her cousin coming together to celebrate the new life that was growing within them. Let’s follow Mary’s example. Even if it means that you will not be able to do everything you want, do not let your responsibilities detract from the time and the appreciation of the people who will be with you this weekend.
Take time to listen to them, to speak to them, to laugh with them and perhaps to cry with them. People come first and without people there can be no true celebration of Christmas.
The Only Way to God
December 20, 2009
There’s a medieval legend that when we come to the gates of heaven, each one of us will have to answer two questions. And because an incorrect answer to these questions could be devastating, it is good that we review them now so that we might be prepared. As we walk up to the heavenly gates the first question that will be asked of us is this: “Have you come alone?” If we were to answer yes to that question, the second question follows: “How could you?”
It is a major misconception of our faith to think that we come to God alone. God has made us connected to one another. We depend upon other people to find our way to God, and we have a responsibility to help others find their way. There is no solitary way to heaven. If we’re going to be saved, we are saved together.
This is what makes today’s gospel both unique and essential. In today’s gospel, Mary comes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Now there is no miracle in this story. The miracles happen a few verses earlier, where Elizabeth conceives in her old age and Mary conceives by the Holy Spirit. What happens in the story of the Visitation is that Mary and Elizabeth celebrate their connectedness to each other. Mary comes to help Elizabeth in the last months of her pregnancy and Elizabeth recognizes Mary’s gift and calls her blessed for being the Mother of the Savior. These two women come together so that they can share their questions and their doubts in confidence, so that they can celebrate the wonder and the anticipation which both of them feel. The two women come together in order to affirm one another’s faith, to help each other on their way to God.
So the story of the Visitation is both a description and an example of our connectedness to one another. Moreover, it points to that connectedness in a particular way. We are, of course, related in some way to all people. But the first person that Mary seeks out after being made the mother of the Savior is her cousin, a member of her own family. So in a particular way, the story of the Visitation reminds us of our connectedness to those who are closest to us, to the members of our own family.
This is a particularly helpful reminder during the holiday season. We all know that Christmas allows us to reach out in new ways to a variety of people. We can give our time and donations to those in need. We can greet the stranger on the street with holiday cheer. But the story of the Visitation asks us to be attentive to the people who are close to us. Often it is these people who have to bear the impatience and the frustration that we feel as we cope with the holidays. The Visitation asks us to love them first, to treat the people in our own household with kindness and with respect.
Today we are invited to look over our immediate and extended family. Is there someone who is struggling, struggling because of sickness, divorce, grief over a loved one who has died? If so, we should resolve to take some time in the upcoming days to contact that person and offer them words of support. Is there bad will between us and someone in our family? This story of the Visitation invites us to pray and to think whether this season could open a door to reconciliation, whether there is a step we could take that would move the relationship towards healing. There would be no better way to celebrate Christ’s birth.
Today’s gospel asks us to look at the people within our own households. With all the hectic preparations for the holidays, we should find at least a few moments in which we can affirm them, express our thanks to them, offer our love. After all, this season is not primarily about gifts or foods or traditions. This season is about the gift that God has given us in the people with whom we share our lives, in our connectedness to them.
Like Mary and Elizabeth, we should recognize and celebrate our connectedness to one another. No one of us wants to arrive at the gates of heaven alone. Therefore, reach out today to members of your own family, so that you can continue on your journey to God together.
Feeling Movements of Life
December 20, 2015
As far as I can tell, today’s gospel is the only scene in any of the gospels where two women speak to one another without an adult male being present. This alone should peak our curiosity. So let’s look at this gospel scene more carefully.
The two women are Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant: Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John the Baptist. But it is really Elizabeth on which this scene centers. Earlier in the gospel the angel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth who was advanced in age and unable to have children, was now pregnant and in her sixth month. You can imagine in these circumstances that Elizabeth had many fears about her pregnancy. The worries of every mother were intensified in her case. Would her baby live? Would he be healthy? Would she be able to deliver him successfully? Indeed, it was probably in light of these fears that Mary set out in haste to be with her cousin during this difficult pregnancy. Now all these details are important to understand when we come to the central focus of this scene. That focus is a movement. It is the movement of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb. It is a movement that only a mother can feel, and it is very likely that it was at Mary’s visit that Elizabeth first felt her child move within her.
Now at this point there should really be a mother here giving this homily because only a mother can describe what it feels like to have life move within you. Only a mother can describe the joy in knowing that your baby is alive—not because your body is changing, or not because a doctor told you so, but because you can feel that life moving in your very being. This visitation story, then, is a story of hope. It tells us that in uncertain and difficult circumstances, we can have reason to trust that things will turn out well because of small but certain movements of life within us.
We all have problems in our families and we often focus on them. We worry about our children, about our parents, about our spouse. But this gospel tells us that amid these valid concerns, we should wait for and identify movements of life. Who is the person in our family that always makes us smile? When have we been proud of what one of our children has accomplished? When have we felt concern and help from someone who loves us? We should not pass over these movements of life. We should treasure them as a mother who is pregnant recognizes the movement of life within her and sees it as a sign that the promise of the future is coming to fulfillment. Stirrings of life in our family and in our world are God’s way of reminding us that goodness is growing around us and within us. It is our role, then, to feel that goodness and nurture it until the day when God brings it to birth.