Ars Praedicandi: Christmas Eve (C), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Although the church teaches that
the most important feast of the year is Easter,
not Christmas,
and the traditional “mystery of faith” that we chant is
‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,’
not ‘Christ was born, Mary was present, Joseph stood
off to the side.’
We don’t sing carols at Pentecost
or set up Shrines for the feast of Christ the King
or have midnight mass on the parish’s patronal feast,
yet at Christmas we do it all.

So why do we expend such energy on this feast
and celebrate it so lavishly?

While there are many reasons,
for me, the central one is that this feast
celebrates the most comforting and yet shocking
aspect of Christian revelation: God’s humanity.

We expect God to be divine and be almighty
and so we have plenty of divinity centered feasts
celebrating God’s omnipotence:
Easter, Ascension,
Christ the King and the Transfiguration.

But in the whole of the Christian year
we only have two great Christological feasts
which seem more focused on the humanity of God:
Christmas – when God’s humanity is refracted in a crèche –
and Good Friday – when God’s humanity is refracted on a cross.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist
to help the preacher figure out
that we prefer the crèche over the cross.

This is a feast where through images of mother and child,
angels and swaddling clothes,
we glimpse something not only of the commitment,
but of the affection that God must have for us.
We taste something of the passion
that God must feel for us.
We glimpse something of the communion
that God longs for with us.

And the secret gospel here
is that, if God can have such affection – such passion for us –
maybe we can learn such affection, even passion for God.
And those whom God so loves.

This is at once the great treasure of this feast
and its unmet challenge.
For while God has united with humanity,
God is still waiting for humanity’s journey to the divine
in a world where there is too much violence,
where too many people lack basic human needs
and upholding the dignity of all
too often seems like unwelcome mythology.

In 1994 two US educators were hired
by the Russian Dept. of education
to teach morals and ethics based on biblical principles.

Among other venues, they taught in one orphanage
where they related the nativity story to about 100 orphans.
Each child was then given 3 pieces of cardboard
to make a manger
with napkins shreds for straw
and an image of the baby cut from felt.

The kids were busy assembling their mangers
when the educators discovered that 6-year-old Misha
had a manger with two babies in it.
When he was asked why,
he accurately retold the story he had heard
until he got to the placing of Jesus in the manger.

Then he began to ad-lib
saying that Jesus looked at him and
asked Misha if he had a place to stay.
But Misha had no mother or father, and no place to stay
so Jesus then said he could stay with him.
But Misha, remembering the wise men,
had no gift to give Jesus, but asked him:
“if I kept you warm is that be enough?”

Jesus said it was the best gift anyone had offered him
so Misha said he got into the manger
and Jesus told him he could stay with him always.

The educators then write that Misha’s eyes brimmed with tears
and sobbed as he had found someone
who would never abandon him,
who would stay with him always.

When a 6-year-old is alone in an orphanage,
a 50-year-old is alone on the street
a 15-year-old is alone in juvie detention,
or an 80-year-old is alone in a nursing home:
then the work of Christmas is unfinished,
the mystery of incarnation incomplete,
and “joy to the world” remains a looming mandate.

There is something unique about preaching this early Christmas eve,
when NORAD – The North American Aerospace Command –
has turned its formidable detection capacities
momentarily away from satellites, bombers, and drones
and is currently tracking a jolly guy in a red suit
who at last report was leaving Wale
and heading north to Scotland.

I know some liturgical types think it inappropriate
even to mention Kris Kringle on this incarnational feast,
but I believe deeply that this widely accepted cultural symbol
has much to teach us about the unfinished business of Christmas.

An anonymous author writes about the time
his older sister dropped the bomb: “there’s no Santa!”
He remembers tearing across town on my bike to visit Grandma.

My grandma was not the gushy kind, never had been.
I fled to her that day because I knew she would tell me the truth
and the truth always went down a whole lot easier
when devouring one of her world-famous cinnamon buns.

Grandma was home, and the buns were still warm.
Between bites, I told her everything.
She was ready for me.
“No Santa Claus!” she snorted. “Ridiculous! Don’t believe it.
That rumor has been going around for years,
and it makes me mad, plain mad.
Now, put on your coat, and let’s go.”

“Go? Go where, Grandma?” I asked.
I hadn’t even finished my second cinnamon bun.
‘Where’ turned out to be Kerby’s General Store.

As we walked through its doors, Grandma handed me ten dollars.
That was a bundle in those days.
“Take this money and buy something for someone who needs it.
I’ll wait for you in the car.”

Then she turned and walked out: I was 8 years old
had often gone shopping with my mother, but never by myself.

For a few moments I just stood there, confused
clutching that ten-dollar bill, wondering what to buy,
and who on earth to buy it for.

I thought of everybody I knew:
family, friends, neighbors, people who went to my church.
I was just about thought out,
when I thought of Bobbie Decker.
He was a kid who sat right behind me in 2nd grade.
Bobbie Decker didn’t have a coat.

I knew that because when we went out for recess in winter
his mother always wrote a note, reporting that he had a cough,
but all us kids knew that Bobbie Decker didn’t have a cough,
what he didn’t have was a coat.

I settled on a red corduroy one that had a hood
It looked real warm.

“Is this a Christmas present for someone?” the lady behind the counter asked kindly, as I laid my ten dollars down. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied shyly. “It’s for Bobby.”

The nice lady smiled at me, as I told her about how Bobby really needed a good winter coat. I didn’t get any change, but she put the coat in a bag, smiled again, and wished me a Merry Christmas.

That evening, Grandma helped me wrap the coat. (A little tag fell out of the coat, and Grandma tucked it in her Bible). We wrapped the coat in Christmas paper and ribbons and wrote, “To Bobby, From Santa Claus” on it.
Grandma said that Santa always insisted on secrecy.

Then she drove me over to Bobbie Decker’s house,
explaining as we went that I was now and forever
officially one of Santa’s helpers.
Grandma parked down the street from Bobbie’s house,
she and I crept noiselessly
and hid in the bushes by his front walk.

Then Grandma gave me a nudge.
“All right, Santa Claus,” she whispered, “get going.”
I took a deep breath, dashed for his front door,
threw the present down on his step, pounded his doorbell
and flew back to the safety of the bushes and grandma.

Together we waited breathlessly in the darkness
for the front door to open.
Finally it did, and there stood Bobbie.

Forty years haven’t dimmed the thrill of those moments
spent shivering, beside my grandma,
in Bobbie Decker’s bushes.

That night, I realized that those awful rumors about Santa Claus
were just what Grandma said they were: ridiculous.
Santa was alive and well, and we were on his team.

I still have Grandma’s Bible, with the coat tag tucked inside: $19.95.

This nativity feast not only remembers that God once dwelt among us
but that through the birth of the Christ,
God forever and eternally
wed himself to humanity
and thus summoned us to complete the gift of incarnation
by wedding our humanity to God’s divinity
and be the enduring presence of Christ in the world.

We take up that task
in a world where are rumors of demise,
not only of Santa Claus but of God,
subtly peddled through the prejudice,
the small-mindedness,
and the greed that subverts the promise of this holy season.

This silent night could be no more than a quaint moment
in which we offer congratulations to a young homeless couple
occupying a handsome crèche
with only one child and no Misha, and no other orphans to be seen.

Or it can be a vocational plunge
that commits us to allow the child to be born in us again.

And so with the poet [1] we muse:

This blessed eve, when carols soar
with angel’s words unfurled
are we content with pleasantries
or wish to change a world

where children starve and nations rage
and greed is how we plod
where even those who bear his name, live
as there was no God.

There is another way to be
a way the gospel charts
and that is to embrace the Christ
and birth him in our hearts.

And so this magic Christmas eve
commit to one clear call
accept the mission from God’s Child
of peace, goodwill toward all.


[1] In the creation of this homily, the original source of this poem was lost. If you know the poet and the poem quoted here, please share that with us so we can give them proper credit.

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