This has been a difficult year,
and just the past few weeks have been especially so.
We’ve had the most funerals
ever in 175 in at least 30 years,
and many ever,
of for our parish*,
making Christmas pretty subdued for a number of our families.
So many of us have endured worry and tension over the virus,
over the economy, over politics,
or because of stresses at home at work,
simply from having everything turned upside down.
To quote a popular song, “We need a little Christmas right now!”
Maybe we need a LOT.
I don't know about you, but I've been looking forward to this Christmas like none I can remember.
Now, here are some news items you may have missed:
In Finland, a member of parliament
has been criminally investigated four times –
for remarks she made in public. What did she say?
She explained what Christians believe
about sin and marriage and Jesus’ coming again.
She has managed to avoid prosecution so far.
This is a democratic country in Europe.
In Nigeria, just about ten days ago,
several hundred school boys were kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists
who have carried out similar kidnappings before.
After ransom was paid, many of the boys
were released to their families a few days before Christmas.
And this item is from Christmas, three years ago:
Two men in red outfits and fake white beards walked through
the devastated city of Raqqa [Syria] and rang their bells,
causing disbelief among the residents who haven’t seen such a parade since 2013,
when the war came to their city.
The Islamic State seized Raqqa in 2014
and…imposed a strict interpretation of Islam on everyone,
but the jihadis were expelled…in October .
The Father Christmases stopped by…an Armenian Catholic church….
reduced to a concrete shell…
The celebrations were put on by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance that ousted the jihadis.
There was no priest…
Loudspeakers belted out hymns
as some set up a large wooden cross on a pile of rubble,
near a Christmas tree decorated with red and yellow balls.”
“There are no words to describe how we feel right now,”
said Christian SDF member Harou Aram.
All of which raises the question: what, precisely,
do you and I need in order to have a Merry Christmas?
If you aren’t all tuckered out on Christmas movies and stories,
maybe take time to read a story by O. Henry,
called “The Gift of the Magi.” There’s probably a movie or TV version.
It’s the beautiful story of a poor couple,
having almost nothing to give each other for Christmas but their love.
With all we’ve been through, the thing that we all had was each other.
Our families, friends and neighbors.
When we had some funerals this year, with the church almost empty,
the streets of Russia were full.
As people have faced needs for food and furniture
and utilities and rent, behind the scenes,
things get delivered, bills get paid.
Our seminarian, Isaiah Callan, helped butcher his first steer –
the meat was for hungry people – and I think he’s been back again.
A lot has gone wrong, to be sure,
but don’t miss the fact that a lot has gone right. More than we realize.
You and I can take so much for granted!
Our church is not a bombed out rubble, and its doors are –
and always were and with God’s help, always will be – open.
All this is a reflection and an effect of what brings us here, now:
that God has entered the world, and given birth to hope.
The light of heaven shines in the face of a child,
and is reflected in your face and mine,
and we cannot help but smile and feel joy and courage.
You and I can only avoid hope by staying away…
But a funny thing happened this year, in Russia.
Despite all that we’ve been through, and all that can discourage us,
we didn’t “stay away.”
I’ve hated having to ask people to attend Mass on weekdays,
instead of Sunday, and God willing, before long,
that advice will no longer be needed.
But it’s an encouraging thing to say,
“I’m sorry, Archbishop, but people just keep coming to church!”
And I can report to you that for months, many months,
more folks have been coming to confession.
After the New Year, I’ll be adding some times for confessions.
Whatever else that it is, it is more proof of God’s grace.
It has been rough. But our Lord chose to be born to a poor couple,
oppressed by pagan Romans, huddling in a barn with farm animals.
Lots of reasons to be discouraged,
and when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple,
they found out even more trouble lay ahead for him and them.
The joy of Christmas is not our prosperity or our stuff,
or our national strength, or our success in business or sports.
No, it is the realization that Heaven has stooped down to earth,
become one of us, and said to each and all:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome,
and I will give you rest.”
The Son of God, born a child of earth,
came that you and I can be reborn as children of God.
And a little child will lead them – all the way to heaven.
What does it take, exactly, to have a Merry Christmas?
* After Midnight Mass, I realized the original claim might be overstated.