I’m generally not a fan of posting homilies on blogs, so this is certainly an exception to my rule. But for those who may be interested in the text from the Christmas masses, here it is. It’s nothing particularly special, but I know some folks have been looking for it in its entirety, so I’ve posted it here. May you have a blessed Christmas season (remember it continues through the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord).
Christmas: The Reminder of a God that Needs Us
Homily of Daniel P. Horan, OFM
On the occasion of Christmas 2010
Our Lady of Lourdes, Utica, NY
Not many people know this, but I’m not the only Franciscan to stand up in my brown habit and preach on the occasion of a big church celebration. There are actually two pastors in the world that have a Franciscan to come and preach. The first is Fr. Joe Salerno of Our Lady of Lourdes in Utica. The Second is Pope Benedict XVI of Rome. The preacher to the papal household has traditionally been a Franciscan friar and every Good Friday, for example, and for all the pope’s private retreats, a Franciscan preaches – standing in front of the Holy Father and the whole church in just his simple brown habit. So when Fr. Joe invited me to preach on Christmas, I thought to myself “If he starts wearing a lot of white and begins waving to crowds from balconies, I’m out of here!”
But, in all seriousness, it is very fitting that a Franciscan preach on Christmas.
The Franciscans have always had a special relationship to Christmas, going all the way back to St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis’s Christmas connection is most often associated with what he did in December of 1223, when he and his brother friars were preparing to celebrate Christmas in the Italian town of Greccio.
It is there that the first Christmas Creche or manger was made. St. Francis didn’t use statues or fake straw like we do today, but instead brought everybody into a little cave that was used by a local farmer as a stable to shelter his animals in the winter months.
And THERE, in the wet, cold, dirty hay, St. Francis and his brother friars read the readings for Christmas, celebrated the Eucharist together and Francis preached about the meaning of the coming of God as one like us.
What most people don’t know is that there were lots of other ways Franciscans, after the death of St. Francis, carried on the tradition of Christmas’s importance. One example is the writing of St. Bonaventure in the middle 1200s.
For Bonaventure, the use of imagination was very important to prayer. Prayer wasn’t just something we should say, like a grocery list of complaints or requests to God. Instead, we were to put ourselves into the situations of God’s relationship to us and imagine, really imagine what that looks like.
At one point he invites us to put ourselves in the place of Mary on that Christmas night. He asks us to imagine what it was like to be visited by the angel, the overwhelming emotion of realizing new life within you, the joyful and confusing visit to your elderly cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant, the dangerous and uncomfortable journey into the wilderness with you fiancée, the arrival in an unfamiliar city with no place to stay, the huddling – as if homeless – in a pile of dirty, old hay in a stranger’s shed.
And the birth of a child in the midst of that less-than perfect world.
And the birth of not just any child, but a particular child at a particular time and at a particular place in history. It is God’s entrance into the world as one like us. Really like us. A human being. A Baby.
At one point, St. Bonaventure invites us to imagine the Baby Jesus like our own child, grandchild, nephew, brother, or godson. In the tender love of a parent for a child, St. Bonaventure writes: “Now, then, my soul, embrace that divine manger; press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.”
Which reminds me of so many of my friends who, at my age, are now having children of their own. And it reminds me of my parents and it reminds me of any number of you who have had children and, in complete admiration of the new gift of life that is this baby, you’ve kissed his or her little feet.
Each year at Christmas we hear the story that changed the world. But do we listen?
What St. Bonaventure is inviting us to remember is that the God of Christmas is not simply the God of power and might and judgment and strength.
But the God of Christmas is the God of poopy diapers and crying at midnight to be nursed. The God of Christmas is a God that needs us.
We are so used to thinking about God as the one that we need, and certainly this is true, but God desired to strongly to be with us and to experience what we experience, that God comes humbly into our world, as a poor, immigrant, powerless baby of an unwed mother and a shamed father – who, shortly after his birth, becomes a refugee in Egypt.
What does God tell us in this story of His entrance into the world about who God is?
First, God is a God not of our expectations, but remains always a God of surprises. The way many Jews were expecting the Messiah to arrive looked nothing like the way Christians celebrate God’s entrance in our world as we do this morning.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is, where Isaiah (like we read in tonight/last night’s First Reading) describes a King of earthly power and sovereignty, God reveals in Christ that the power of the Kingdom of God is that of humility and love. While indeed God is almighty – the meaning of “Might,” as we see in the birth of a tiny baby, is not so much a matter of power and strength as it is a matter of possibility…a God of All-possibilities (as in, I might do this or I might do that). God is al-MIGHTy.
This God of all-possibilities chose, from all eternity, to enter into relationship with us in the most unique way — As one of us, a possibility nobody could foresee. And in becoming one of us, God entered this world as another interdependent human being, who relied on his mother and father, his grandparents, his neighbors, his disciples and those who cared for him. JUST as so many others, really all of us, rely on him.
The second thing God reveals to us in the story of Christmas is that God still needs us. As St. Teresa of Avila is remembered for saying: “Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. We are his body.”
It is you and I that God uses to bring “Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the oppressed, and justice for the marginalized” like we read from the Prophet Isaiah and like Jesus proclaimed was his mission at the beginning of his public ministry.
Christ needs us, perhaps not to change his diapers or nurse him in the middle of the night like Mary did, but instead to continue his mission on earth – something that each of us takes on when we dare to call ourselves “Christian.”
Like Jesus, we depend on others and, more importantly, so many depend on us. Not just our families and friends, although especially our family and friends, BUT God’s hands are our hands when we: serve the poor, welcome the refugee, embrace the forgotten, love the marginalized, comfort the bullied, forgive those who have hurt us, show justice in the world and love one another.
Like Mary, we are called to bear God and bring God to birth in our world today, welcoming God in the least among us. What we celebrate today is not a one-time thing. BUT a recognition of the great love that God has shown for all people, and as anyone who has had a baby knows, that love demands a lot of us. How do we show that love of God to the world? From whom do we withhold that love?
Like a newborn baby crying in the middle of cold a middle-eastern night. God still needs us. Merry Christmas