Christmas


Christmas Season
What follows is offered as a homily for early in the Christmas season (that is, the season that begins late on December 24 and lasts through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord). It attempts to do mystagogy from the ritual that is the season itself. Thus the homily echoes some words of Advent, draws on that great breadth of Images that fill these weeks (especially those of Luke and Matthew), and begins to reflect on what it might mean to keep such a season in the winter of 2004-05. This text might be the basis for the homily on Christmas itself, or on the next day which is Sunday and the feast of the Holy Family, or even on the first day of January.
Gabe Huck


Year after year most of us are quite content to skim rather lightly the surface of this mystery that comes after the four weeks of Advent and lives in our midst through Epiphany until the feast of the Lord's baptism. We might argue that our lives have enough stress and even sorrow to them. We need a little time that's just joy to the world, a cozy time to try again to let gifts work some magic between us. So it is understandable if we just skim along on the lovely surface of Christmas. The harsh details of the story itself are best swept out of sight. Give us an unbloody birth, meek animals, a stable so cozy and warm.

Cozy and warm are good things. The carols we sing convey a certain sweetness, well-worn words and pleasant tunes. The lights on the tree, the cards, the parties and family gatherings, even the gifts: all are intended to bring some beauty into our lives, to revive or mend or strengthen relationships. All sorts of human societies have found ways to celebrate feasts that allow the ordinary to be put aside and the "once a year" sights and deeds and sounds invite us to some renewal of self and community.

But Christmas asks and offers more. Begin with this. Some bishops make it a regular practice to celebrate Christmas Mass in a prison or jail. Our positive reaction to this probably comes from a common feeling that in prisons much of what we demand of Christmas is impossible. So we think: "Isn't that great? The bishop is going to be with people who can't have a real Christmas." "Bravo!" we say. But let's listen to this, a letter written more than sixty years ago by a prisoner in Germany. The writer, a scholar and ordained minister in his thirties, had been arrested for being part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. As Christmas 1943 approached, he wrote to his parents: "For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell. I daresay it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name."

The letter-writer then says that there are things about Christmas a prisoner can understand better than anyone else. He names three of these things. First: "That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to us." Second: "That God should come down to the very place that we usually abhor." Third: "That Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn." The letter's author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would survive that Christmas and one more; he was executed just days before the war ended.

Perhaps we ought to hope that those bishops who visit prisoners on Christmas are doing so because they wish to be near this mystery. Listen again to Bonhoeffer's letter when he reflects that the prisoner can understand Christmas: "Misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to us." What exactly is he talking about? What does a prisoner know about how anything looks in the eyes of God? Perhaps it is this: Take away all the cards and trees and lights and sweets and parties and gifts and shopping. Take them away by force. Then, Bonhoeffer says, if you survive, if you still hold to Christmas, you will begin to see that at the heart of it is something that could not be grasped by those who give their energy and attention to the warm and cozy things. With all that stripped away, the prisoner might see that this seasonal telling of the story of a birth is something amazing: "Misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to us."

Is that the truth about Christmas? Imagine if someone were to say: "You there, you are a Christian, right? You keep Christmas, right? Well, tell me this: What is it that moves you to give glory to God and sing about peace on earth?" Would our answer be likely to include something about a glimpse - and perhaps only a glimpse - of how God sees misery and suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and even guilt? Do the stories and scriptures and songs of Christmas tell us about this? Have we been listening? Have we been singing?

We know the stories that are told at Christmas, but perhaps we somehow learned to censor parts of them. For example, half way through Advent this year we heard a passage from Isaiah that began with a vision of a day to come when the desert and the parched land will bloom. That's the familiar part. But did we also hear Isaiah say: "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not." Did we ask, "Who, me?" Am I the one with feeble hands and weak knees, or am I the one who is to find those who hands are feeble, whose knees are shaking with fear? What does that have to do with Christmas?

Or consider the shepherds. They show up in lots of carols and all the crèche scenes and most of the cards. Do we know the shepherds, or have we just heard the story so often that we never consider what it means that of all the people on earth, it is shepherds who got called into our story, our crèche, our carols and cards? The truth is: Shepherds were on the bottom rung and they weren't going up. Shepherds are the people with nobody else to look down on. They don't know how to read, they have some horrible habits and diseases, they smell bad, and they don't know the first thing about being good citizens or good Jews. Nobody ever boasted: "Hey, look, there goes my son. He's a shepherd!"

So what kind of a way is this for the story of Jesus to begin? Is it some testimony to how deep is the mercy of God that even these lowly shepherds are called to the manger? Or is it that only those with absolutely no claim to any respect or power had imaginations large enough to deal with singing angels and a brand new baby crying in the feeding trough of the barn animals? Remember what prisoners know about Christmas: "Misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to us." Helplessness. The helplessness of the shepherds in their world. The helplessness of the infant. It is very hard for us who so fear and even despise helplessness to take this in.

The shepherds and the stable are in the story told by Luke's gospel. Matthew's gospel knows nothing about shepherds, nothing about a stable. But Matthew has some things that Luke doesn't know about. Matthew begins the story of Jesus' birth with a family tree that goes all the way back to Abraham. One person was the father of another person, who was the father of another person, for 42 generations. Except for this: Matthew breaks with the customary way of doing such things and in four cases he actually mentions that some of these men had mothers! Astounding! But that's only the beginning. Here are the four women Matthew mentions as ancestors of Jesus: First Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute so that she could seduce her father-in-law; then Rahab, not one of the Israelites but a foreigner who supported her family with prostitution; then Ruth, another foreigner; then Bathsheba, Uriah's wife forced to be David's mistress. Far from giving Jesus noble ancestors, Matthew's gospel begins by saying: You're not going to like this. It isn't all seemly and proper. It doesn't make the Christmas cards. It's about the stuff that prisoners understand.

And what about the conclusion of Matthew's best-known story of Jesus' infancy? That story begins with Magi, wisdom-seekers who tried to read the stars and such. Their visit to King Herod sets up Matthew's drama. On stained glass windows we see over and over the star leading the way, the Magi offering their gifts, even the narrow escapes of the Magi and the Holy Family. But what about the bloody climax of the story, soldiers killing babies? Perhaps that comes too close to home. What is this except a challenge to ponder with those keeping Christmas in prison how "misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness - just think of those mothers! - helplessness, and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to us."

Sisters and brothers, these stories are too beautiful and too hard to hear alone. We come to hear them as the church because only in this communion can the full truth begin to dawn on us, only when we have each other, only when we need each other. All the days this year from December 25 to January 9 are the days of Christmas. In those sixteen days we gather five times - Christmas, Holy Family, New Year's Day, and the first two Sundays of January called Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord. Together on these days we not only tell the stories, we come round the table and we give thanks to God for so loving the world, for loving the world in this amazing way - the way glimpsed best perhaps by prisoners, the way that led Luke to tell of shepherds and Matthew of brutal murders and a scandalous bunch of ancestors.

At the core of that thanks we give to God is our willingness to see with the prisoner's eyes all of the misery, all of the suffering and poverty, all the loneliness and helplessness, and even all the guilt that swirls around us. Every Christmas is grounded in the way God's mercy embraces the world and its poor now. That is just as true in this grim year 2004 when the rich, armed to the teeth, are more and more separated from the poor, when millions upon millions of innocents die deaths we know well how to prevent, when fear is once again used by the powerful to hang on to their power. All that is incarnate in us, made flesh in this assembly. That word made flesh is the very stuff of the Christmas season and for that we should well give glory and thanks to God.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
The Baptism of the Lord
Year B
The following is cast as a homily for January 12, 2003, the Baptism of the Lord.

This homily, and similar efforts to follow, is an exploration of how the rites we do, as well as the scriptures we read, are integral in preaching. This effort should be considered, month by month, a work in progress that invites your comments (gabeandtheresa@gmail.com). In some congregations, these texts might make useful discussions for those involved in preparing the liturgy (the committee or board or whatever entity or individual takes that responsibility).
Gabe Huck

We've heard the verses:
River Jordan is chilly and cold,
chills the body but not the soul.

River is deep and the river is wide;
milk and honey on the other side.

And we've heard some baritone voice singing: " Deep river , my home is over Jordan ." How could the only nearly river in this dry, dry land not be part of the stories and the songs? Of course the Jordan isn't chilly and cold; it isn't deep and it isn't wide. The Jordan is a stream more than a river, inching its way from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea , lowest place on earth's surface. But what's the real truth? It's chilly! It's deep! And it's wide!

It has been said: "Water is the other name for life." That is so in North America where drought was severe and widespread last year; it is so in western Asia and southern Africa where drought has hung on for several years now. And water is the other name for life among the people who have lived and now live in the lands around the Jordan River .

John was baptizing in the Jordan . Who knows now what this baptizing looked like? Some sort of plunge, some sort of immersion, some sort of dipping of the body. The gospel writers say it was a reform movement John preached and baptism was how one signified taking this reform to heart. Stirred by John's preaching, people went into the water. Water is the other name for life! And one day there was Jesus among them and he, too, went into the Jordan . Along with many others, he got baptized!

The baptizing John did was no harmless act of piety. Herod, who had a good police force, was alarmed enough by this baptizer to have him put in prison. We know what happened next. So water, for John, also had to do with death - as indeed it does. Jesus, after his baptism by John, began to preach repentance and there was no turning back. Somewhere along the way to Jerusalem and his own death, Jesus told his friends: "There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!" (Luke 12:50). This plunge into Jordan 's waters became for Jesus an image of another plunge, likely his execution.

How well the artists of later centuries understood this when they made icons or frescoes of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan! There is Jesus, naked as the night he was born, naked as he would be on the cross, standing waist-deep in the Jordan . But the Jordan was not for these artists that lazy, meandering stream. Instead, the waters are leaping up around Jesus. Sometimes it looks like the waters want to drown him and sometimes it looks like they want to clothe him! The fish are jumping in and out of their water home to get a look. And well they might, because what these artists were painting is a fierce confrontation between good and evil.

Water might be the other name for life, but all of us have witnessed when it is another name for death. It is stronger than we are. It is out of our control. It can have terrifying breadth and depth. What better place for God's enemies to reside than the waters, the place of chaos, of great monsters, of evil? So when they painted Jesus' baptism, the artists imagined Jesus taking on the monsters of the deep, trampling them down. They thought about some lines in Psalm 74: "You stirred up the sea in your might; you smashed the heads of the dragons on the waters" (74:13).

This is how it came to be that on the holiest days of the year, when the church fasted, kept vigil and told the story of the death of Jesus, other stories were told. And we still tell some of them on the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. There was the opening of Genesis, when "earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters" (1:1). The waters! And there was the story of the great flood when water reclaimed all earth's life except that strange ark with Noah and the family. And there was the story of the escape through the waters that dried up for the fleeing slaves but swept back to drown the armies pursuing them. And sometimes there was the story of Jonah thrown into the fierce sea and swallowed by the great fish.

Like those artists who painted the baptism, the church was saying: If we want to know what the passion and death and resurrection of Jesus are about, if we want to know them in our minds and in our bodies, in our hearts and in our daily lives, then listen here and ponder all these stories. And remember how, on the cross, Jesus cried, "I thirst!" And when he died, both blood and water flowed from his side and so was born the church.

All of this, all of this is what swirls around us when we take an adult or an infant to the font for baptism. But for centuries it did not seem so. In the Roman Catholic church, baptism became this quiet, tidy, sweet little event. The water had all but disappeared - just a few drops on the forehead. Most Catholics thought about baptism as the removal of original sin and, once done, what else was there to say? Infants were quickly and quietly baptized on Sunday afternoons. The occasional unbaptized adult received a few instructions about the church, then - without the parish as a whole even being told - was privately baptized. What was for our ancestors the moment when life and death did battle, the moment when, after much preparation, an infant or child or adult was plunged into the water and loudly baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, all this had become just two generations ago an occasion when the water was less important than the party afterwards.

But forty years ago at the Second Vatican Council the bishops of the world began to see it clearly again. Perhaps, being in Rome for the Council, some of them happened to go to the bishop of Rome's cathedral, the church of St John Lateran, and read what had been carved into the great baptistery hundreds of years before:

Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood destined for another City,
begotten by God's blowing
and borne upon this torrent
by the Church their virgin mother.
Reborn in these depths they reach for heaven's realm . . .
This spring is life that floods the world,
the wounds of Christ its awesome source.
Sinner, sink beneath this sacred surf
that swallows age and spits up youth.
Sinner, here scour sin away down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are by
one font, one Spirit, one faith made one.
Sinner, shudder not at sin's kind and number,
for those born here are holy.
(Translation by Aidan Kavanagh.)

Well, they might have thought, I never heard of that! How can our musty and often tiny fonts be places of this wild fertility where God's blowing begets new members of the church? How can our quiet little Sunday afternoons contain a spring that floods the world, a pool where sinners are scoured? Then maybe they put it all together: the Jordan, the baptism Jesus longed for on Calvary, and the church today.

Now our baptismal fonts are often large; sometimes they flow with water. Now we are encouraged to plunge the infant three times into the water while proclaiming those words: "I baptize you!" Now no adult comes here in the stillness of a Sunday afternoon, but in the midst of a church full of fasting Christians after Lent's scrutinies and after much reflection and conversation. Catechumens are led to this font only when the vigiling and fasting and prayer of the Triduum have brought us to the middle of the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Then, while we call on all the saints, name by name by name, to pray for us, we approach that spring of life whose source is Christ's wounded side. There they renounce and denounce the evil one and all that evil does, and profess faith in God.

Now is water truly the other name for life - and the other name for death! Here the dying and the rising of the Lord Jesus are manifest. Here is our own death and life. No pretty religious moment this, but future-shattering drowning. We sing: "You have put on Christ!" Yes, you have. We have also. And though we struggle and struggle to get the gospel into our baptized selves, we are people dead to sin and alive to God, born-again people set on loving the world as God loves the world. By the side of the waters then, fragrant oil is poured over the newly baptized and rubbed in. There are new garments, and bright candles in this midnight hour.

We have six weeks of Ordinary Time and forty days of Lent before all this happens here, but the story comes today of the Jordan and the baptism of Jesus, and we give thanks that in our hands in these generations after Vatican II is this work: to be a church that loves the font of baptism and longs to be there and to build up the body of Christ; to be Christians who daily and especially on Sundays take water that reminds us that we are baptized and then with that water to sign ourselves with the cross - the cross where life and death contend each day in our world and where we must over and over choose life.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).