Monday, December 25, 2017

The Reason for the Season

Last night as is my Christmas Eve custom, while waiting for our children, still with visions of sugar plums, video games and other goodies dancing in their heads, to fall asleep so I could set out their presents under the Christmas tree, I settled in front of the TV to watch the delayed broadcast of Midnight Mass from the Vatican. The familiar strains of the ancient Christmas liturgy were all there along with the pomp and circumstance, the haunting choral music, the fancy people in the front rows, the panoply of languages including Latin, all the smells and bells, and the endless procession of Cardinals embellished in their lavish vestments, preceding the Holy Father, Pope Francis I, as he made his way up the nave of the enormous St. Peter's Basilca. This would be the current pope's fifth Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's, which took place shortly after his 81st birthday.

To some, the over-the-top pageantry of the Roman Catholic Church in all its glory, in its premier venue on its premier occasion, belies the simple story it is commemorating, that of a poor man and his pregnant wife, forced to leave home and travel a grueling journey at the decree of a far off emperor. When it came time for the mother to give birth, no one would open their doors to these strangers, so the couple was forced to find refuge in a barn, placing into service the animals' feeding trough as the bed for their newborn. Of course theirs was no ordinary child, and the good news of the birth of Jesus, the eternal sign of God's being one with His people, was not delivered first to the fancy people, the leaders of the community, the property owners, the righteous, self or otherwise, those in good social standing with comfortable lives, but to the poor and dispossessed, the outcasts, those at the lowest levels society, namely the shepherds out watching their flocks in the middle of the night. Their sheer terror of coming face to face with an angel of the Lord must have been only slightly allayed when he proclaimed to them:
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Now whether you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or believe in God at all, you have to admit that this is one hell of a story that not only gives many of us some degree of hope in a troubled world, but also provides a valuable insight into the human experience as a lesson in humility. Imagine if you will, the King of Kings, Wonder Counselor, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace coming into this world born in a stable, watched over by the untouchables of polite society. Some might argue that it's such an unlikely story, only God could have come up with it.

Likewise, in its infancy, Christianity was itself an outcast, its members persecuted as heretics, tortured mercilessly before being killed mercifully for daring to proclaim their faith in this radical, revolutionary new religion. Needless to say, more than two thousand years after the birth of Christ, Christianity remains the most dominant of the establishment religions of the world, unrecognizable from its humble origins. And Christians, 1,637 years since their faith became the officially sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire, have done more than their share of persecuting.

No, you won't find much humility at Christmas Mass in St. Peter's in the Vatican, nor for that matter, here in Chicago at Holy Name Cathedral. My family learned that lesson exactly eleven years ago yesterday when we attended Christmas Eve Mass in the cathedral, my mother's parish church. By the time we arrived for mass, about fifteen minutes early, the seats in the pews were all taken save for two, way up at the front of the church. We asked the people seated there if my wife, then eight and one half months pregnant with our daughter, and my septuagenarian mother could sit in the available spots. No, the people sitting in the pew told us, they were saving those spots for their late-coming friends. My wife and mother ended up standing with my son and me for the entire mass. To this day I wonder if the irony of that situation ever registered in the minds of those people who turned my elderly mother and very pregnant wife away.

Today in Pope Francis, we have a pontiff who is doing his utmost to move the Catholic Church away from its climate of self-righteousness and privilege, and closer to its humble beginnings emphasizing the fundamental core values of love, forgiveness, compassion and charity. More than his predecessors, Francis has made a point of advocating for the outcasts of society, namely the sick, the poor, the incarcerated, and most recently, the refugee. In a world whose direction seems pointed in the opposite direction with the recent election of populist demagogues who feed off anger and fear of the stranger, Francis's message is a simple one, be not afraid. When Francis speaks at Midnight Mass in St. Peter's of the plight of the Holy Family as strangers in a strange place turned away by the townsfolk, it should come as no surprise that he would make a connection between the Christmas story and the plight of people living today. Sure enough, early this morning Pope Francis told the world:
The faith we proclaim tonight makes us see God present in all those situations where we think he is absent. He is present in the unwelcomed visitor, often unrecognizable, who walks through our cities and our neighbourhoods, who travels on our buses and knocks on our doors.
This same faith impels us to make space for a new social imagination, and not to be afraid of experiencing new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this earth. Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity, into power for a new imagination of charity. The charity that does not grow accustomed to injustice, as if it were something natural, but that has the courage, amid tensions and conflicts, to make itself a “house of bread”, a land of hospitality.
In his Christmas Eve homily, Pope Francis, who has never hidden his disdain for the current lot of populist leaders including our own president, minced no words this morning when he compared them to one of the most notorious of New Testament villains:
So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary. We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones. In many cases this departure is filled with hope, hope for the future; yet for many others this departure can only have one name: survival. Surviving the Herods of today, who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood.
Them's truly fightin' words, the pope equating contemporary world leaders with the man whom Christians believe ordered the slaughter of all male infants in Judea, out of jealousy of the newborn King, whose birth he was informed of by the gift-bearing visitors from the East.

For his part, the Christmas Eve message from the President of the United States was a self-congratulatory tweet proclaiming that he won the "war on Christmas" as evidenced by the number of Americans who were once again using the term "Merry Christmas."

Little does this man seem to understand that the real war on Christmas lies in our selfishness, our indifference, our lack of compassion and understanding for our brothers and sisters, certainly not in our reluctance to use the word Christmas in deference to our friends who do not celebrate the holiday.

The pope closed his message with a prayer to God to wake us from the slumber of that indifference:
Moved by the joy of the gift, little Child of Bethlehem, we ask that your crying may shake us from our indifference and open our eyes to those who are suffering. May your tenderness awaken our sensitivity and recognize our call to see you in all those who arrive in our cities, in our histories, in our lives. May your revolutionary tenderness persuade us to feel our call to be agents of the hope and tenderness of our people.
It is that fire of the revolutionary spirit of the early church that Pope Francis hopes to ignite in the hearts, minds and bellies of all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

When this pope speaks these words the chorus of angels proclaimed to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem so long ago:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward men...
...he is not uttering a trite slogan found on greeting cards once a year, but proclaiming a call to action for us, this day and every day. It is a message of self-reflection and hope for people the world over of good will, whether they believe or not.

In other words, it is truly meaningless to say the words merry Christmas without living them.

May all of us learn to live those words in the coming new year.

And a very Merry Christmas to all!

Post script:

Pope Francis's 2017 Christmas Eve homily can be found in its entirety here.

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