Christmas Homily 2014

Christmas homily

December 24/25, 2014

Neale Donald Walsch writes:

                                 Yearning for a new way will not produce it.  Only ending

                                 the old way can do that.

                                 You cannot hold onto the old, all the while declaring that you want

                                 something new.

                                 The old will defy the new;

                                 the old will deny the new;

                                 the old will decry the new.

                                 There is only one way to bring in the new.  You must

                                 make room for it.  

                                                                                                (From R. Rohr’s “Eager to Love”)

And “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the Inn”.  (Luke 2)

In the mystery of Christ’s birth, God brings about something new.  The Old Dispensation gives way to make room for the new.

Words from Isaiah spring to mind, when God says through the prophet:

Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not:  See!  I am doing something new!  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  (Isaiah 43: 18-19)

Often, we resist what is new and unfamiliar because it threatens us.  Most often, we’re asked to change when faced with what is new; and change is painful.

That is why we cling to the old and often pine away for days long past; for the way things were which only obstructs the new and keeps us from the growth essential for any meaningful life.  And life has meaning only when we allow ourselves to be stretched; to see life and others in ways that are new.

This newness I’m speaking about is not novelty.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s a way of seeing everything against an “infinite horizon”.   It is the experience of being pushed beyond the narrowing confinement that keeps my life safe, and me in control;  like a child about to be born:  pushed beyond the womb and into the light of a wider world.  This inevitable push into the new and unfamiliar which the spiritual life involves and that is spelled out in the Gospel—beginning with Christ’s birth—is  often traumatic; like the birth trauma of any newborn.

In the mystery of Christ’s Birth, such newness breaks through the darkness of this worn and fallen world.  Do we not perceive it?

I sense the dawning of “something new” in Pope Francis; particularly during the recent Synod on the Family, held recently in Rome.  I sensed as well during the Synod’s deliberations some resistance on the part of some bishops and other participants at a new way of looking, for example, at divorced and remarried Catholics  and about the possibility of changing church discipline so they might be able to receive the Eucharist.  Some of those of a more rigorist persuasion feel this would compromise Christ’s teaching on marriage.  Others feel the opposite:  believing it would reflect more the mercy and compassion of Christ who sought out always those lost and beyond the margins.

The Church, essentially, is about mercy.  Does not the birth of Jesus announce such News within the vulnerability and innocence of newborn flesh?  Does not the Gospel announce One born for us,   who “desires mercy, not sacrifice.”

Pope Francis is asking us and the larger Church to look at the Gospel afresh and in a way that opens us to Christ who makes all things new.  In his Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” the Holy Father said:

The Church…needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word…(to) seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out this abiding newness…(and) abandon the complacent attitude that says:  “We have always done it this way.”

In the aftermath of Ferguson, MO is not something new trying to come to light and beyond the blind resistance and complacency of racism?

In Christ’s Birth something new is definitely happening:  a God swaddled in infant flesh:  the Unseen seen by those frightened shepherds and witnessed to by a night sky shaken with glory.

What can this Birth mean for us, distanced as we are by two thousand years; who sometimes find ourselves more skeptical than hopeful; our lives complacent, unshaken by the reality of God?

I would like to tell a story; a story that is true.  A story that brings Christ’s Birth and its meaning closer to our own skin.

Recently, I came upon an article called “Pastor on the Street” (in SPU’s Quarterly “Response”); about a Methodist minister named Rick Reynolds, Executive Director of “Operation Nightwatch”.  Nightwatch is  an interdenominational ministry serving Seattle’s poor and homeless; the many living on our streets.

The article talks about a homeless man named Ronnie who, in Reynolds words, was about the “homeliest, smelliest, loudest homeless guy at Nightwatch.  Allow me to quote from the article:

One night, with a captive audience at the Center, Ronnie asked the minister, “Ain’t I beautiful?”  “Sure,” Rick lied.  “Then hug me,” Ronnie said.

Rick extended his arm for a safe side hug.  Ronnie turned and wrapped his arms around Rick, hunching his 6-foot-2 inch frame over the pastor.  Stubble pressed into Rick’s face and he smelled the stench of body odor, cheap booze and cigarettes.  Ronnie planted a kiss on Rick’s cheek, and then left.

“I was patting myself on the back about the good thing I had done,” Rick says.  Then he sensed a voice within asking, “Who was the ugly one in that situation?”  Rick realized that he was; who wanted to “keep Ronnie at arm’s-length.  He on the other hand, threw his arms around me with glorious, exultant joy.”

I believe this story is a window into Christ’s Birth in which we glimpse—when willing to see—this birth in a new light.  This newborn, wrapped in swaddling clothes and within the stench of our humanity, wants only to wrap his arms around us, with his face pressed against ours; a God who wants only to get close through the shocking newness of His approach, revealed in Jesus, from now to eternity. 

How often we keep such presence at arms-length and a safe distance as we blindly make our way through life?   Because of Christ’s birth, the Unseen God is seen and now found in places where we’d rather not look.

Tonight, the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, and Ronnie’s arms wrapped around that minister are one and the same.   It is the unseen God encountering us even now; who wants only to be seen.   Such vision alone has the grace to save us from ourselves.

In a homily Pope Francis emphasized how the Church must cultivate what he calls a “culture of encounter”.   He said:

We are called to promote a culture of encounter…when the culture of exclusion, of rejection is spreading.  There is no place for the elderly or for the unwanted child; there is no time for that poor person in the street.  (Homily to the Brazilian Bishops, p. 60)

And “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the Inn.”

In the birth of Christ, God brings about something new: a fresh approach and way of seeing, that we might sense the arms of His love wrapped around our small and selfish lives and feel the stubble of his presence against us, urging us to recognize the beauty of another; those we tend to keep at arms-length whether that be the person next to us, or God, or ourselves.   In Christ’s birth heaven is wedded to earth, revealing to anyone who, like those shepherds, is willing to look up and see that there is no distance in Divine Love.

There Christ is known; there His presence found and His birth continues; where life opens to the One who makes all things new and where, like Reynolds, we meet up with a “glorious, exuberant joy”.

This Christmas and beyond, let us be willing to make room for Christ; to let go of what is old within ourselves so that the newness  God promises by this birth might take hold of us for good.

A blessed Christmas to all of you!

Father Tim Clark, Pastor

Our Lady of the Lake Church, Seattle

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