Monday, December 24, 2012


I never post my homilies before I'm through delivering them...but in the spirit of Christmas I guess I'll make this one exception.  And wherever you see [RING], well, you can just imagine what that stage direction means...

   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

At St. Helen’s Church 
up in Chasm Falls,
there’s a full wrap-around gallery—
much as there is here at Notre Dame,
except on a much smaller scale 
in that tiny country church.
I have several “little friends”—
ages five and under, I’d guess—
who regularly sit upstairs with their families…
…and who regularly 
make not-so-whispered comments
for the rest of us to enjoy.

Just over a year ago,
at the same time as the new Roman Missal was implemented,
we reintroduced the custom of ringing bells [RING]
at the moment of the consecration in the Mass.
In a tradition going all the way back to the thirteenth century,
bells have been rung to elicit both joy and attention
as bread and wine—in a very real yet hidden way—
become the Body and Blood of Christ.
It’s at the very heart of the Mass,
and at the very heart of our Catholic faith.

Needless to say, it’s an especially solemn moment.

So you can imagine the reaction in the pews
when, on that first Sunday of Advent 
that the bells were back,
as I was elevating the Sacred Host above the altar,
and a server was ringing the bells 
from his kneeler [RING]
just as we’d practiced—
a high-pitched voice from the loft intones,

So much for solemn!

And then, not two weeks ago:
same church, same moment in the Mass, same bells,
and—I presume—my same little friend upstairs,
gleefully declaring [RING] : “Jingle bells!”

Bells are not nearly as much a part of daily life
as they once were here in the Western world.
Nowadays, out telephones have MP3 ringtones,
our alarm clocks buzz,
and schools send out an electronic signal over the intercom
when it’s time for classes to change…
but they don’t have actual bells anymore.
Bells are pretty much left for just two things that I can think of:
churches and Christmas.

At Christmas, there’s a lot of talk of bells.
There are Jingle Bells and Silver Bells.
There are Salvation Army bells at the doors of the stores.
And there’s that memorable line 
from the end of, It’s a Wonderful Life:
“Every time a bell rings [RING] an angel gets his wings.”

The famed American author 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
once wrote a poem called, “Christmas Bells.”
(It’s been turned into a Christmas song,
but they usually leave out a couple of the verses.)
Longfellow wrote this poem on Christmas Day 1864.
In the summer of 1861, 
Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, had burned to death,
and he himself was injured and permanently scarred
while trying to save her.
That same year, 
the first shots of the American Civil War were fired,
leaving the entire country in turmoil and fear.
Tragedy struck again when Longfellow’s son, Charles,
a lieutenant in the Union army,
was shot on the battlefield in November 1863 
and left crippled for life.
In the face of both national unrest and great personal loss,
Longfellow didn’t feel much like celebrating Christmas.
He wrote in his journal, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children,
but that is no more for me.”  (December 25, 1862)

But then, on that particular Christmas Day,
in the depths of grief and gloom,
Longfellow heard church bells ringing—
and he was inspired to write these hope-filled words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

When bells first rang at the heart of the Mass
more than eight-hundred years ago,
it wasn’t a small set tinkling in the hand of an altar server [RING]
no, it was the great bells pealing up in the church tower.
Those bells weren’t ringing to wake up a sleepy congregation,
refocusing their attention at the highpoint of the Eucharist
(although that’s a pretty handy side effect);
they were sending a message far and wide,
to those who could not or would not get to the church—
to the homebound sick and the poor bound to their labors,
to those locked in prison and those guarding the city gates.
Like the angels who appeared to Bethlehem’s shepherds,
they announced good news of great joy for all the people:
heaven was again being born on the earth;
the Son of God, according to his promise,
was once more appearing in human flesh and blood—
not laid in a manger where cattle feed,
but laid upon the altar to feed his own flock.

We need church bells—we need Christmas bells—
now as much a Longfellow did, don’t we?
2012 has been a difficult year for so many people.
We’ve all had our disappointments.
Many of us have suffered the loss of loved ones.
As a nation, just in these last months,
we’ve continued to bring home the dead and the wounded
from conflicts in foreign lands;
we’ve weathered a violent “superstorm”;
we’ve wept at the brutal death of innocent school children;
and we’ve braced ourselves for continued fiscal woes.
Yet in our darkness, a light has shone;
and right here—where we laugh and cry,
where we rejoice and grieve,
where we despair and hope—
the grace and glory of our great God and savior continues to appear,
just as he did before the eyes of Joseph and Mary.

So we need to ring our bells!
We need to ring them not just near our altars, [RING]
and not just in our church towers,
and not just at Christmas, either.
We need to ring out the good news of God-with-us
in our lives each and every day.
It’s not exactly a compliment to tell somebody
that they have “a face that could ring a bell”…
…but each one of us gathered here tonight
needs to have a living faith that rings a bell:
eliciting in those around us both attention and joy
that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh—
in a real though hidden way—
continues to dwell among us.

My little friend upstairs at St. Helen’s 
knew that “jingle bells”
announce the coming
of a certain jolly man 
in a bright red suit.
May the bells of our churches [RING]
both inside and out—
always announce the coming of him
who is both the Son of God 
and Son of Mary:
once wrapped in swaddling clothes 
and adored by shepherds;
later wrapped in a shroud 
and laid in a tomb;
now wrapped in glory 
and reigning forever.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”


Merry Christmas!

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