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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Homily (long form)

                No matter how many times we hear the Nativity story, it remains fresh and dramatic. Although the readings remain the same, something within changes each year -sometimes we find an obscure detail to capture our imagination and to bring new meaning to the story. Or we read scripture by paying attention to the emotions of each of the characters. This year, we are more experienced and perhaps a little wiser and we realize that we need a savior to be born for us. When we contemplate what God has done for us, we are amazed that this tiny child was given to us so that we are no longer separated from God. This is an awesome gesture on God's part.
          Isaiah's words speak to the heart of our need for a savior: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone." When we realize how messed up our lives are, we appreciate more fully what God is doing for us. We need hope. We need hope in our hearts once again so we can enjoy life as our true selves desire. We look upon this feast with wonder and awe, and also soberly because we know our salvation has to come from the outside. We cannot save ourselves, and God in his goodness has chosen to do it.
          I always find it fascinating to meditate on how God is feeling on this night. Mostly I sense God is proud and well-pleased. God often gets overlooked because we focus on the newborn boy, but God is ecstatic that first events that lead to our salvation have begun: Jesus Christ is born for us. God set in motion the events that will bring us back to him. God is the giver of every good gift. God is in every Christmas present we give and receive. I think of this quote from Ingrid Undset,
          "And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans ~ and all that lives and moves upon them. He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit ~ and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused ~ and to save us from our own foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.

          My heart warms when I think about how God feels as he gazes upon you gathered here. I think he wants to say, "Welcome home. I'm glad to be with you. It is wonderful that you have come together again. I want to share my whole life with you. I want to share my most prized creation with you - my Son, called Emmanuel - God is with us." I feel in my heart that God acknowledges and is deeply moved by the love you show him. He wants you to know he is always part of your life - in the good times and in the messiness and in the normal course of daily life. God feels great tenderness and affection towards you. Let God be good to you this Christmas. Let God shower many graces upon you. Just open your heart to receive them.
          I imagine God also feels vulnerable because he will become a human infant in the most precarious condition possible. He, like the shepherds who live in the fields, has no home. The only one he gets is the one we give to him. He knows this is risky because our hearts need to grow to have some room for him. Without our growth, Christ has no place to live, and God knows many will turn away from him and want to harm him.
          My daydreaming over these readings takes me to the shepherds' stories. Scripture tells us they live in the fields. Shepherding is a nomadic way of life, not a job that one holds. There's no house to return to. Perhaps a shack or a lean-to, but no permanent dwelling - just the fields. In my prayer, I see not only a group of male shepherds that the movies and Christmas cards portray, but their entire shepherding family. It startled me that for the first time I saw the wives and children of shepherds and my heart went out to them because I want them to have a sturdy home. I want a better life for them. I want them to be afforded all the resources that a more prosperous family has. It appears odd that the multitude of angels appeared to them, but each of us has a bit of shepherd within us. We have times when we have felt isolated and disregarded by a larger society that looks askance at us. We've had periods in our lives when we've felt not welcomed and "not at home." And yet the shepherds have a privileged place. It was to them the news of this kingly child was told, and they could relate to him - because neither of them had a home. Both the child and the shepherd needed to build a home inside each other's hearts - and this can only come when our hearts are open to God's invitations.
          Somehow, the infant's birth warms our heart and begs us to bear with one another. He continually draws the best out of us. He makes us look upon even our greatest adversary with whatever kindness and patience we can muster. We know the Christ-child only wants what is good for us and for our neighbor. He knows the cruelty that exists in human hearts. He wishes we would change but he doesn't force it. God never acts with force or violence. God never acts with force or violence. In fact, the child  doesn't do anything but rest in a crib and in his mother's arms. He causes us to gaze upon him and marvel at him. This tiny boy will become everything that Isaiah said: Wonder-counselor, God-hero, Father-forever, and Prince of Peace.
          However, he is not that today. He is merely a human baby who hungers for food and human affection. He merely wants us to pick him up and hold him close to our chests. Nothing more. That's right. Pick him up. Hold him. Squeeze him and tell him that he is beautiful. That's what infants need. Kind words and a warm human touch. How else are we going to know him unless we embrace him warmly and let him into our battered world. We have much to say to him. Today it is good for us to tell him our hopes and dreams for our lives together. All he can do is absorb the love you give him at this point. Give him your love. Give him your love. Let this be the first thing he encounters in this world. He will return it someday. He will tell you that you have a beautiful face. He will certainly remember you. It is our time just to be with one another and to waste time enjoying each other. That's all he wants.
          As we look at him, we cannot help but see God, the Father, who set this blessed event in motion. Jesus is here for us because God wants to be among us. God long desired to bring us back to him because he misses us. The birth of Jesus is like God giving the human race a big warm cosmic kiss on the forehead. It is merely a token of the great love God has for us. No wonder why the choirs of angels sing to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people of goodwill." Let us tonight receive the news of the angels deep within our hearts. Let us become familiar with the tune so it can erupt forth into our song of praise. Then, from each day forward let us sing heartily and fully like the shepherds and angels on this happy day of our salvation. Glory to God, Glory, and peace to all of you, dear people of Goodwill!

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