That's What Christmas Is All About

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  December 25, 2018

If there is one day in the year when skepticism melts away and the believer inside each of us resurfaces, that day is probably Christmas.  Even in this secular world, where it is easy for the story of the birth of Christ to get lost in the crush of parties and shopping, of pre-Christmas sales and post-Christmas sales, we hear St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, with Mary and Joseph, with shepherds and angels, and it touches something inside of us. 

But is it all just a nice story that we tell once a year, a children’s play we act out, that makes us feel all warm and sentimental, and then we just return to business as usual on December 26?  Or might it be possible that our annual remembrance of the birth of Jesus, fully human and fully divine, is in fact calling each of us to a new birth, a new awareness, an experience of a God who has come to dwell in us, in you and in me?    

In his recent LETTER TO A NON-BELIEVER, Pope Francis engages in a dialogue with Italian journalist and agnostic Eugenio Scalfari. He says:   

For me, faith was born of an encounter with Jesus. It was a personal encounter that touched my heart and gave new direction and meaning to my life.  It was an encounter made possible by the community of faith in which I lived, through which I gained access to the word of God in Sacred Scripture, to new life in Christ through the Sacraments, to fraternity with all, and to service of the poor, who are the true image of the Lord.

Without the Church, I would not have encountered Jesus, though I am aware that the immense gift of faith is kept in the fragile clay jars of our humanity.  From this personal experience of faith, lived in the Church, I can listen to your questions and, with you, seek the paths along which we may walk together. What strikes me most about Jesus is that his authority is not something external or imposed, but rather comes from within and is self-evident.  Jesus impacts us, shocks us, and renews us, and this comes from his relationship with God the Father, whom he calls “Abba”!”

What is Pope Francis telling us here?  He does not try to defend the faith by philosophical arguments or by condemning secularism.  Instead, Francis speaks the language of personal experience: an encounter with Jesus which transformed his life, and to which he now bears witness.  It is one thing to say “I believe in God.”  It is quite another thing to say: “God believes in me, and I know this because of my relationship with his Son, Jesus Christ.”  Similarly, it is one thing to say, “I believe that Jesus, the son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem, during the reign of Herod and Caesar Augustus.”  It is something else to testify: “The Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory: I have encountered him, he has changed my life, and He lives within me.”

Christmas invites us to move from the head to the heart, from speculation to experience, from external observation to inner transformation.  But how can we do this?   How will we touch Divine Love this Christmas, so that beyond the competitive gift-giving, the shopping and partying, the disappointed expectations, we can open ourselves to what Christmas is truly intended to be: a life-changing encounter with Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Human Face of God, the living sign of God’s unconditional and infinite love for all his creation – and for me personally? 

This past year, German film director Wim Wenders made a documentary about Pope Francis entitled “A Man of His Word”.  He focuses not so much on the fact of his being the first Pope from the New World, or the first Latin American Pope, or even the first Jesuit Pope. Rather, he interprets him through the lens of the name he chose when he was elected: Francis, after the poverello of Assisi.  He draws out the ways in which his ministry is inspired by diverse aspects of the life of St. Francis: simplicity of life, outreach to the poor and marginalized, reverence and care for creation, openness to dialogue with other religions and with the secular world, and ongoing reform in the life of the Church.  In each of these areas, Pope Francis is making his mark, and he has encountered a lot of resistance as well, often from within the church. 

Pope Francis knows he isn’t perfect.  He describes himself as a sinner, but as one looked upon with love and mercy.  He knows who he is, he knows the One to whom he belongs, and he knows that Christ has the power to transform us, to heal this broken world, and to help us become all that God had in mind when he created us in love.

This is the source of our joy.  Listen to these beautiful opening words from his letter on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium:  

“The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.  Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin and sorrow, from inner emptiness and loneliness.  With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. (…) Encountering Christ, letting yourself be caught up in and guided by his love, enlarges the horizons of experience, gives you a firm hope that will not disappoint. 

Faith is not a light that scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and accompanies us on the journey. (…) To those who suffer and struggle, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, His response is that of an accompanying, loving, luminous presence.”

Granted, it is often hard to be in touch with this joy. It can feel very far from our experience. If Christmas brings out the best in us – positive memories of love, of family and friends, of faith renewed – it can equally awaken in us fears, resentments, and disappointments.  Christmas is often when we feel most acutely the loss of loved ones – whether through death, divorce, geographical distance, or human estrangement – and that can be intensely painful, especially when you are being told to “eat, drink, and be merry”, when your sadness or struggle makes you an uncomfortable guest.

It helps to remember that it was precisely to poor, outcast shepherds that angels appeared to herald the Good News of a Saviour’s birth.  Luke’s Gospel, which we will read throughout the coming year, presents us with a Jesus who chose to be poor with the poor, to reach out to those who were on the margins in his society: to women and children, to the blind and the lepers, to all those branded as sinners and outcasts: tax collectors and prostitutes and Roman officials alike.  And so too, Jesus dwells today in unexpected and marginal places: in the hospices for the dying, the refugee camps on our borders, in those who come to our churches not just for handouts or Christmas baskets, but a place of warmth and welcome, of true hospitality and welcome.  The question is: will we welcome him?  Is there room at the inn? 

The irony, of course, is that the more we begin to welcome Jesus in the poor and outcast, the more we meet a Jesus who welcomes us in our own poverty and unworthiness.   

To the lost Christ shows his face,
to the unloved he gives his embrace,
to those who cry out in pain or disgrace,
Christ makes with his friends a touching place. (John Bell)

So maybe this year, we can try something different.  Instead of thinking of God or Jesus as someone outside of me, an object of faith or knowledge or doctrine, let us enter into the experience of God as within me, of a Jesus who reveals to me my true identity, that like him, I am the Beloved.  Ponder a God who does not judge you and find you wanting, but whose only desire is to embrace and hold you, in your own brokenness and fear, who asks only that you surrender to infinite and unconditional Love. 

We may find this very difficult, as everything in us – our ego especially – wants to remain in control, to grasp, to manipulate.  The message “let go and let God” is incredibly simple, but also very hard to do – as anyone who has even struggled with addiction or gone through a 12-step program will tell you.  And yet, the mystery of Christmas is encountering the God who reaches out to us, who gives us the touch, the embrace, the kiss, the acceptance we have always wanted. Gradually, our masks are peeled away, our vulnerabilities revealed, our hurt and fear exposed to God's healing love. 

In Jesus, the Word made flesh, we encounter a God who enters the world in weakness and vulnerability, who entrusts himself to our care.  Jesus, the Light of the World, the Eternal Son of God, who bears our sins and sorrows, becomes our child to bear: an infant dependent on his mother’s breast for nourishment, on his father’s care for protection, on the hospitality of strangers for a home.  The One who cares for us is equally present in the ones to whom we are called to offer loving care and support.  The circle of love is unbroken.  And all are welcome.

Still finding it hard to believe?  I think this prayer by Jesuit Father James Martin might help.  It helped me, when I read it:  

“If you're overwhelmed by Christmas stress, or anxiety, or frustration, or loneliness, or sadness, remember that only one thing is necessary: You need only to open the door of your heart to God. God loves you more than you can know or imagine.  And God wants to enter your heart in a new way this Christmas.  Just open.”

This is my prayer for each one of us here tonight (today): that our own hearts, our homes, our families, our parishes, our city, our nation, our entire world may become a place where the presence of the living Christ is welcomed, honoured, and celebrated; whose doors and hearts are open to love; whose members are empowered to live as bearers of the hope, peace, and compassion embodied by Jesus, the Word made flesh, the human face of the Father’s mercy.

And in the immortal words uttered in 1965 at the end of the Peanuts’ Christmas special, by the prophet Linus: “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!”  

So on behalf of all of us here at (St. Gabriel / St. Monica), we wish you a peaceful and joyful Christmas, a happy and blessed New Year. May divine love and tenderness take root in your hearts and homes, and may his Son Jesus Christ make you angels of hope, love and mercy to all you meet.  Joyeux Noel! Buon Natale! Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas!