Christmas 2015

Christmas Homily                                                                                                                                December 24/25, 2015

Christ’s Birth and the Spiritual path teach us—you and me—an essential; that takes a lifetime to learn.  It is this:

I must be willing to make myself small; becoming small is essential.

In the Gospel, the Baptist named John describes this lesson in these words:   “He must increase and I must decrease.” 

And Jesus says:  “You must become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Even small children know that Santa needs to make himself small if he ever hopes to get down those  countless chimneys and keep alive the gift and wide-eyed  wonder of Christmas Day.

Even that old Scrooge, Ebenezer—solitary as an oyster, he—ends up small like a newborn after those three Spirits take hold of him and lay bare his soul.  Stumbling out of bed and into the morning light, he says:

I’m as light as a feather, I’m as happy as an angel…I’m quite a baby.  Never mind!  I don’t care!  I’d rather be a baby…

Says Scrooge as he babbles joyously and eventually carries Tiny Tim in his arms.

Pope Francis writes:  “When we realize that God is in love with our smallness, that he made himself small in order better to encounter us, we cannot help but open our hearts to him.”

Years ago and during a retreat with a group of men from St. Jude’s Parish where I was Pastor, I shared a room with Rick Angelo, a rather prominent and well-known orthopedic surgeon on the East side.  Getting ready for bed, I grabbed my toothpaste and brush and headed for the bathroom.  As I turned, I found Rick on his knees and by his bed, praying. 

It surprised and moved me all at once; amazed at his willingness to make himself small in that way, like a child.  I stood there humbled, too, since it had been years since I had done the same. 

To make ourselves small within this ego-driven world is more necessary than ever before.  Only by learning to become small do we increase the memory of God in ourselves and within this world where God is little remembered much of the time. 

 We must be willing to make ourselves small; becoming small is essential.  It is the way the timeless mystery of Christ’s Birth continues to be brought forth in all its luminous truth.

Recently, there was an article in the Seattle Times highlighting the writer Chris Maynard.   He, too, talks about feeling small, but in a rather different way.

As a boy, he took a field trip with his third grade class where they learned “how telescopes made it possible to peer light years away into an endless array of stars.”  This made Maynard feel small, not as a source of wonderment as it is for some; but of helplessness.  On the bus ride back and while contemplating it all, he began to hyperventilate.  Feeling small within this vast universe was scary.  It made him feel insignificant.

Haven’t all of us felt this small at one time or another?  All of us, I do believe, have felt inadequate and helpless for whatever reason.

I imagine those shepherds in Palestine that first Christmas night felt small in this way.  They were “struck with great fear”, Luke tells us, and must have felt puny and helpless as they huddled together beneath a star-studded sky; the heavens quaking and those mysterious beings aflame and alive for God.  

Yet, God’s purpose has never been to leave us feeling helpless and overwhelmed with fear.  That is not God’s nature, and it is why the Angel reassures the shepherds, saying:  “Do not be afraid”; words we never grow tired of hearing; four words that forever encapsulate the Gospel message and this saving Birth.

These words spoken by the Angel need to be heard in our own time, crippled as it is with irrational fear; fear that blinds us to one another and the  common origin we share because of God. 

“Do not be afraid”, says the Angel, for a Savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord:  swaddled and lying in a manger.

Simply, this Birth makes God simpatico with us in every joy and sorrow we face.   That is why I like to use the word “espousal” when speaking of the Christian life because, by this Birth, our lives are wedded to God in a loving and human way; a way we can understand and by which we are understood.

In this Divine Birth, God spans light years and infinitude to be with us.  Father Lovett, who was with me at St. Jude’s, would often say in his homily:  “God is crazy about you!”  We’d nod and smile; though I found myself rarely believing it or taking it to heart.  Perhaps such lack of confidence in the spiritual life is simply a ploy to keep God at a safe distance?    Nevertheless, God doesn’t give up; crazy as He is.  God pursues us and continues to be born even now; becoming small within the ordinary nature of our lives.    

The poet Denise Levertov describes how the infinite God becomes small, beginning with Mary, in these words:

                                                To bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness:

                                                To carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity;

                                                To contain in slender vase of being the sum of power—

                                                In narrow flesh, the sum of light.

                                                Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-Child

                                                Needing like any other, milk and love—but who was God.


Our faith asks us to believe in a God who became small; needing like any other, milk and love.  This is the shock and scandalous nature of this birth.  No other religion makes this claim. It’s so unlike the image of God we carry inside; a distorted image and one of our own making.  Yet, God chose this approach because it is the way of intimacy and love; a language we understand, though my hunch is we distort that as well.  God chose this approach because it’s the only way we’re delivered from self and born anew, like Scrooge who sees everything as if for the first time; like someone crazy in love.

Simply, this is the Good News written in flesh and with such enduring love. 

Some months ago, I read Terry Tempest William’s “Finding Beauty in a Broken World”; a great read.  She spends time in Rwanda.  Following the genocide, she worked with volunteers, spending time there and helping people piece together their shattered lives. 

She traveled with a translator since she did not speak the language.  He was a local man named Louis.  During a conversation Williams asks him what he’s learned through the work of translation.  He replies by saying that “There is something beyond language.  There is something else.”

“What?” she asks.  And he responds:

Hunger.  You are hungry to understand.  You are hungry to be understood.  But without translation we just talk to ourselves and no one eats…As a translator, I see hunger on both sides.  I create a place where these two hungers can meet.  (p.272)

I believe these words help us understand the significance and essential meaning of Christ’s Birth. 

In a real sense, Jesus comes to carry out the work of translation:  making sense and revealing the true nature of what’s been said from the beginning; shedding light in the darkness and opening eyes to what has been revealed through the Law and the Prophets.

As Divine Translator and Word made flesh, Christ wants us to understand and sense within ourselves that common hunger on both sides.   He does this so that, by his life, these hungers might finally reconcile.   By Christ’s birth and God taking on a human face we are challenged to focus on “what unites rather than that which divides us” (Pope John XIII), essential for peace and life together.

After his Birth, Jesus is placed in a manger which is nothing more than a feeding trough for animals.  Translated, it means God understands every hunger; the hunger to understand and to be understood.  God understands both sides and, by this birth, desires to piece together our shattered lives.  This is why we need to celebrate His Birth year after year; more importantly, to remember it daily.  So that we might see this hunger for what it is and recognize something of ourselves in the other; see something of God in all that lives...    

Most crèches and manger scenes show Jesus, not swaddled, but with open arms; arms stretched out.  Some say this is meant to prefigure his death on the cross.  I would say it’s meant to signify the openness and merciful embrace Jesus lived as he walked this earth; an openness and mercy that want only to be born in us daily.  This is the challenge of Christ’s Birth.  Will we embrace this challenge and call to mercy; or will we keep it at a safe distance once again; our lives unchanged and faith stillborn?

With this embrace in mind, I’m reminded of another passage in William’s book I cited earlier.    She quotes   Eduardo Galeano who writes about people who work at both ends of life:  with newborns, and those who attend to the aged at life’s end.      With newborns, the first human gesture is the embrace;    that “after coming into the world…babies wave their hands as if seeking someone.  At the end of life this happens, too, as the dying try to raise their arms.  The “voyage” which is our life happens, Galeano writes, between these “two fluttering’s”.  (pp. 190-191)

From beginning to end—at birth as well as death—we reach out for a presence beyond ourselves.  We hunger for that; for that embrace where we understand and are understood.  It’s in our nature to do so.   I believe there’s something of God in that.  It leads to God.    

This is why the outstretched arms of the Christ child are so revealing.  They speak of all that; yet tell us something more about this birth and what truly gives us hope in this life here and now.  It is this:  we are Already sought and understood; embraced and loved by a God who becomes small for our sake.

I’m reminded of words by St. Bernard of Clairvaux:    “Remember, you are sought more than you seek”.

This is the great joy and meaning of Christ’s birth:  that we are sought and understood by a God, who becomes small, needing—like any other—milk and love.  Only this awareness will open us to his mercy.  Only this will win us over and bring us to our knees.


Fr. Tim Clark, Pastor

Our Lady of the Lake Parish, Seattle

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