Thursday, December 25, 2014


   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

We had a little accident around here last January:
as the Christmas decorations were being put away,
somebody dropped the baby Jesus.
I don’t want to name names
because it was a perfectly innocent mistake—
but the old plaster figurine simply shattered.
(When they came up with the word “smithereens,”
this was precisely the sort of thing they had in mind!)
Repair seemed right out of the question,
so we focused our efforts on replacement.
Before the end of last winter,
we’d found a reasonably acceptable substitute;
it was nowhere near the same,
but I figured it would have to do.

Then, about a month ago, I was in St. Mary’s Church in Lake Titus,
looking for something else altogether,
when I saw a box of old Christmas decorations
in the back of a small closet.
I dug through the tangle of old lights and plastic evergreens,
and there he was:
a nearly exact match for our broken baby Jesus!
But this one was in perfect condition,
while the other one had previously
been cracked and touched up a few times.
Christmas was saved!

The new bambino came with an added bonus:
in the box was his very own manger.
(We didn’t have one for the old infant;
we simply built up a pile of straw
and put a small cloth under him.)
After arranging the nativity scene 
Monday afternoon,
the last piece I put in was the “new” manger,
filled with fresh hay.
Yet as soon as I set it in place,
I was tempted to take it out again—
or at least make a slight alteration to it.
You see, at the top of this simple assembly of sticks
there’s a small wooden cross.
I grew up on a farm;
I know a thing or two about mangers,
and I know that not even the most devout farmers
put a cross on the top of a feed box.
It was a pious little touch,
but it seemed to me terribly out of place.

Until yesterday afternoon.

I was making a visit to a ill parishioner
who wouldn’t be able to get to church this Christmas;
I knew she and her husband would appreciate the chance
to receive Holy Communion at home.
In the course of our conversation, she asked me:
“Father, maybe you know:
Why did God even let me be born?
I’ve been sickly much of my life.
Right now, I can’t really leave the house
and must depend on others for nearly everything.
Why would God bring me into the world…for this?”

And that’s when I knew
why that cross belongs on the manger.

I shared with her that she’d been born
for the very same reason 
that God sent his Only Begotten Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary:
because God’s madly in love with her,
and can’t stand the thought of this earth—
or, later, heaven—being without her.
Out of sheer love, 
he’d brought her into being;
out of utter love, 
he’d come to redeem her;
out of purest love, 
he’d seen her through many an earlier hardship,
and wasn’t about to abandon her now.
I quoted St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests,
beside whose image in stained glass I’m preaching tonight:
“The cross is the gift that God makes to his friends.”
“I guess God thinks of you as a pretty good friend,” I said.

I made her husband promise
to bring up her favorite Nativity scene from the basement
and set it up right there in the living room.
(They hadn’t done hardly any Christmas decorating this year).
She needed to keep her cross near the manger.

We come to this Christmas celebration brimming with joy—
“’tis the season to be jolly,” after all.
Be we come here bearing a fair amount of sadness, too—
things disappointing and discouraging,
personal and unique to each one of us.
Life’s not always easy—rarely so, in fact.

So we’re here tonight with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds below and angels above,
to kneel again in wonder before the mystery
that almighty God, the Creator of the world and Lord of all,
came to be born in our human flesh—
with all its limitations and weaknesses.
The heavenly hosts sang, and we echo still:
Gloria in excelsis Deo—Glory to God in the highest!
Nearly one hundred years ago,
English writer G. K. Chesterton wrote a poem
that proposed a different take:
Gloria in profundis—Glory [to God] in the lowest.
The reason for our joy tonight
is that God didn’t hesitate to wholly join us down here below.
From diaper rash to arthritis, from Ebola to terrorism,
and all the dark and gloomy moments in between,
he’s entered totally (excepting for sin) into the human condition—
beginning in the humble manger of Bethlehem,
all the way to the humiliating Cross of Calvary.
Often enough, we feel like that fragile plaster baby:
dropped hard, and broken to bits.
Instead, what’s been smashed by the Incarnation
is the dominion of sin, death, and hell.
And our human nature comes out
not only looking good as new, but even better than before:
destined to live with God forever.

Our holy patron, St. André Bessette,
suffered from ill health much of his life,
and was a instrument of healing in the lives of many others
who were afflicted in countless ways.
He used to say,
“People who suffer have something to offer to God. 
When they succeed in enduring their suffering,
that is a daily miracle.”

It’s the miracle of grace that keeps his holy crib
ever-so-near our every cross.
Gloria in profundis—Glory to God in the lowest!

Merry Christmas!

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