Christmas Day (25 Dec 2009)
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Christmas can overwhelm. Preparations can overwhelm us. People—both their presence and their absence—can overwhelm us. Some parties can overwhelm us. Of many ways to cope one is to retreat into the Christmas story as remembered in carols, customs, cards and other images; and of course, the scriptures, which shape the carols, customs, cards and other images of this season.
Yet Christmas scriptures overwhelm, announcing God at work for us. The main characters did not have it easy being overwhelmed by God. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, their friends and kin would line up after another to remind us, “Don’t romanticize the Christmas story.” Yet, we have been conditioned to do that. We remark about the stable and its manger with words like: beautiful; lovely; warm; and others, though beauty and warmth do not always deepen devotion or help us be overwhelmed by God.
St. Francis of Assisi created the first creche to deepen devotion not romanticize it at an outdoor Christmas mass where a town chapel was too small to accommodate all who would come to mass. We know he didn’t romanticize because Francis sought permission of the pope: Francis did not want to be accused of casual regard for the mystery of God become human or of novelty, which always endangers tradition.1 He told his brothers, “Hurry and prepare as I tell you. For I want to do something that will recall the little Child who was born at Bethlehem, how he lay in a manger, how—with an ox and an ass standing by—he lay there upon the hay with such inconveniences.”2
I thought of that Tuesday afternoon as I sat before our creche and enjoyed the aroma of the newly set pine trees. From my reverie I recalled one of those inconveniences was an unpleasant odor: with an ox and an ass standing by the first creche was smelly like the one it recalled in Bethlehem so long ago; and St. Francis did it to deepen devotion not to romanticize it.
You and I can enjoy the beauty of our parish nativity scene and our own at our homes. We enjoy with devotion when we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by God and God’s devotion to us. That’s not always easy. Sometimes we have difficulty overcoming distraction and are unable to be distracted by God. At others our pain, uncertainty and fear about what life has dealt us make it difficult to invite God into our lives, untidy and inconvenient as they are. Gift giving helps us focus on others. At times we focus more on gifts—not only presents to give but our gifts which make us the individuals God created—than on the Giver of all gifts.
Enter the main characters of the Christmas story as scripture offers it. Zechariah could not receive God’s word without scoffing. Told he would finally have a son, who would prepare the Messiah’s way, Zechariah dismissed the message: I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.3 Elizabeth was overwhelmed and had to defy cultural norms, family and friends to name her son.4 Joseph was going to end his engagement when he learned Mary was pregnant.5 Mary overcame great fear and anxiety knowing what was said about her—unwed mother—was true. And the shepherds!
The shepherds, who we’d say had nothing to lose because they stood very low on society’s ladder, and the sheep they watched they didn’t own, allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by God. They are good models for us because our status, comfort and ability to move easily in society can prevent us from allowing God to overwhelm us—not to tire or belittle us but to create us anew. Christmas is about new creation.
The first thing scripture mentioned about God creating the world was light. The Psalmist sang to us of new light dawning in human darkness; Luke reminded us Bethlehem’s darkness shone by the light of God’s glory; and St. Paul that Jesus’ birth began our rebirth. To allow God in Jesus by their Spirit to overwhelm us is the beginning of Jesus being born anew in us. His simplicity, poverty and humility recreates us as citizens of a new Bethlehem, David’s royal city. To allow God to overwhelm us recreates us as devoted apostles of glad tidings, who make known far and near God’s overwhelming devotion to us and to all by our actions and by the example we set to overwhelm our world.
- St. Bonaventure mention this in his Life of Francis. The paragraph is easily available.
- Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, pp. 84-85. Citation beneath an image of a fresco by Giotto, entitled, The Manger of Greccio.
- Luke 1.18.
- Luke 1.59-61.
- Matthew 1.18-19.