Monday, December 25, 2017

What difference does Christ make? (Christmas homily)

This year, at last, we have something of a white Christmas. 
That doesn’t happen here very often, 
and that always seems to make a difference.

Christmas seems to be a “come inside” sort of time; it is cold outside, 
and dark or cloudy most of the time. 
We want to be where it’s warm and bright.

It is also a “come together” time. Looking out at your faces, 
I see many of our college students and other family members 
who now live elsewhere, now home. 
At the same time, there are many 
who are on the road to family elsewhere. 

So now that we’re all inside, and all together, let me ask a question:
What difference does Christmas really make? 
That is to say, what difference does Christ make?

If we are honest, there are multiple reasons we are here.

Yes, it’s one of the really important holy days, so there’s that.
The church and the music are beautiful, 
and it brings such good memories.

Or we might say, well, it just wouldn’t feel right not to go to Mass, 
at least on this day of all days.
And, some would probably admit they are here, to some degree,
to make someone else happy.

Will you entertain the possibility that there is grace at work here? 
That the hand of providence played a role?

I predict, right now, that there will be folks who came to Mass today, 
who will leave having awakened to a reason you needed to be here; 
But you only saw it after you were here.

We can fool ourselves into thinking Christmas is about lots of things.
Yet the truth is that underneath it all, 
Christmas is finally about just one thing: and that is a child. 
The child who is Jesus Christ.

So back to my question: what difference does he make?

Many people seem to have decided that the answer is, not much. 
Or, at least, not that much that affects me.
So we have a growing number of people today 
who are called “nones”: meaning they have no religious affiliation.
And many of these are folks who grew up as Christians; and others, 
who never had any particular religious practice growing up.

This includes several members of my own family.

On this day when we hear the word “light” 
repeated in the prayers and the readings –
our churches and our homes are likewise adorned with light – 
I’d like to point out some of the light we would not have, 
if there were no Christmas. Three ways Christ makes a difference.

First, Christ makes the difference of bringing forgiveness.
It seems to me that our society is less forgiving.
And let me point out that there is a difference 
between a society that forgives, 
and a society that decides that what used to be wrong, no longer is. 

So, to use an example: we have many people 
who have come to our country in violation of the laws. 
Most people agree this is a problem; 
Where we disagree is over the right solution.

In the midst of this we have two notable phenomena:
First, that there is a hardness of some people’s hearts
when it comes to forgiving the transgression of the law; 
and second, a growing insistence by others that
there was nothing actually wrong with breaking the law 
in the first place.

But you see, these go hand-in-hand: if you cannot hope for forgiveness, 
you aren’t going to admit you are wrong. 
Does that sound familiar, married couples?

Many people find it hard to forgive; and it often is very hard.
Let me just point out that there isn’t anyone here, 
over the age of, say, two, who hasn’t been forgiven, 
both generously and continuously through your life.
Much of it you aren’t even aware of, or you’re forgotten.
Don’t believe me? Ask your parents!

The power to forgive comes from Christ. And remember, 
that is why he came. He was born, knowing that he would die. 
The wood of the manger in which he lay 
foreshadowed the wood of the Cross on which he would say, 
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And that is all of us.

Another difference Christ makes? 
He came to give us the power to change.

Now, a lot of us will say, but I don’t change! 
When I go to confession, 
I keep bringing the same sins over and over. 
I never seem to overcome my bad habits.

It is true that change comes hard and slow.
And yet it will come, if we are humble enough to ask God’s help.

Meanwhile there are miracles of change that happen all the time; 
they serve to show just how powerful the Holy Spirit is, 
when we truly yield to him.

I think of a man named Charles Colson. 
In the 60s and 70s, he was a rising political activist. 
He reached a position of great power in the Nixon White House – 
only to be brought low by his own pride; 
he was, by his own admission, “ruthless” in pursuing political power.

One of his boasts was instigating a riot that left 70 people injured; 
and he helped destroy the good names of many people.
When he went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, 
he was a much hated man. 
But the prayers and witness of Christians around him, 
along with humiliation of his fall from power, changed Chuck Colson.
He went on to spend almost 40 years – until his death – 
working for prison reform 
and to be a voice for those society often prefers to forget about. 
When he died in 2012, 
he had been honored around the world for his good work. 

What had changed him? Christ changed him. 

Finally, let me note one more difference Christ makes: 
His coming into the world lets us know that no matter what we face, 
and however alone you or I may feel,
We are never actually alone.

Christmas isn’t just about God communicating to the world; 
he has done that countless times through the ages.

But as the letter to the Hebrews says, 
“in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son” – 
who was born of the Virgin Mary. Human like us. 
Poor and forgotten as so many are. Powerless and ignored.

He felt the same sting of mocking words that every schoolchild knows. 
Jesus’ hands bore the same scars and callouses 
that our parents and grandparents earned, 
building their farms and this community.

Jesus knows what it is to be betrayed by a trusted friend, 
And to stand up for what is right, and be left alone.
Make no mistake, there have always been rich and powerful people, 
And to this day, 
they still tend to have plenty of strings to pull to get what they want.

But the difference Christ makes is that God has cast his lot, 
not with the comfortable, but with the cast out;
not the lordly, but rather the lowly.

God chose a poor and hidden birth, as well as a criminal’s death, 
so that there would be no one – not anyone at all – who could say:
I am too low, I am too poor, I am too awful for Christ to care for me!

There is not one of us who Christ does not want to call brother, 
so that we can be part of his family, 
to know the life of the Blessed Trinity.
This is what Christ invites you to. This is why he came.
There is not one of us here who Christ did not come to forgive, 
to change, and to be our companion for life and eternity!

This is why the hand of providence brought us here;
these are the gifts the Christ Child brings on this Christmas Day.

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