[I preached this sermon at the Christmas Eve Children’s Mass at Saint John’s.}
Let’s be honest and admit up-front that many people here this evening don’t have their minds on the birth of Jesus. These same people probably didn’t pay much attention during Advent, and John the Baptist and Isaiah slipped right past them. And they couldn’t have cared less about these Advent characters because their minds were elsewhere. Specifically, Santa Claus was the guest of honor in there mental living rooms.
Shortly after Thanksgiving I happened to be walking past a Santa Station in a mall, and there they were, eager and anxious youngsters lined up to see Santa. I make the distinction between eager and anxious because the eager ones had greed written all over their faces. They desperately hoped they’d get most of what they’d written on their lists for Santa.
Then there were the anxious little kids who were terrified of meeting Santa. I felt sorry for the parents who tried to still their cries and screams. It didn’t make for pretty pictures, and I realized once again one of the fringe benefits of being a monk.
Of course not all kids react that way, as one of my coworkers assured me about her son. Her son was neither greedy nor terrified. Rather, he was curious, in a district attorney sort of way. When his turn came to meet Santa, he put Santa on the hot seat. “What happens if Santa gets sick — who takes his place?” “How come the elves never get any bigger?” “Why would anyone want to live at the North Pole?” And on it went until Santa gratefully handed her son back back to her.
I do have a point here, and it’s this. For the youngest citizens among us, Santa has grabbed their attention. And if you are one of these kids, please hear what I have to say. At Christmas Santa and parents and brothers and sisters will bring you presents, but it’s not because you desperately need all those things. Rather, those gifts are a sign that they love you. And so, when you get gifts at Christmas, be sure to thank your mom or dad or brother or sister or Santa. They give because they love you, and they care about you.
I suppose that also applies to the oldest citizens among us too. Gifts are tokens of love and appreciation, and sometimes people even have to make personal sacrifices to give them. Our gratitude and thanks are absolutely the best response we can ever give, and it’s something we should consider doing even when Christmas is long over.
Generosity is the point of Christmas. In the Bible we read that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to be one of us. It’s an act of generosity that we don’t always understand, but it’s one for which we should be grateful for precisely this reason. In chapter one of Matthew’s gospel we read the genealogy of Jesus, and the point of it is simple. Jesus may be the son of God, but he is also the son of Mary. As Matthew tells us, Jesus descends from a long line of Jewish ancestors, stretching back to King David. And Jesus did not come here to mess around in all of our affairs and give us a whole bunch of rules. Rather, he’s here to be our brother. He is one of us, and he’s like us in all things except sin.
What, then, does Christmas mean on a practical level? It means that God loves us and in Jesus God walks with us. God doesn’t want to be aloof from our daily problems and the challenges of our lives. Instead, Jesus came to be part of our lives. He wants to hear from us, and he wants to speak with us.
So if you’ve never prayed to Jesus as if he were your brother, the time to start is now. If you’ve never confided in Jesus when you’re going through tough moments, then the time to start is now. If you’ve never thought that Jesus personally loves you and cares about you, then the time to start is now.
Jesus was born of Mary in a manger, but not because he had nothing else to do that day. Rather, he came precisely so that he could get to know each of us. He came to carry our burdens and to rejoice with us. He came to be with us in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. He came to be our savior and our friend.
What greater love could God have for us, and what greater gift could we possibly get at Christmas? Be sure then to thank God when you next speak with Jesus. And thank him especially for the gift of his son, our brother. Amen.
+On December 23rd Frantz Soiro spoke to the monks in the chapter house about his current year as a Benedictine Volunteer at a Benedictine abbey in Africa. Frantz grew up in Newark, NJ, went to Saint Benedict’s Prep there, and graduated from Saint John’s University last May. He is staying with us in the monastery for a month while he takes a course in preparation for medical school, which he will start at Morehouse in Atlanta this fall. In late January he returns to Africa for the second half of his stint as a Volunteer.
+On December 24th I was the celebrant at the children’s Mass at the Abbey parish. It was really a fun experience, and I’m grateful to all those parents who managed to calm their little kids down, finally. A nativity pageant preceded the Mass, and as I watched from the rear of the church I was taken aback by one unexpected development. As Mary and Joseph and the shepherds circled the manger and then turned around to face us, Mary was holding a doll. So also did two of the shepherds. I turned to the lady beside me and gasped that “Mary had triplets! I don’t think that’s in the book.” I couldn’t figure it out until they all processed out and I discovered that the other two dolls were actually lambs. Thankfully they had not rewritten the Nativity story after all.
+Because we were celebrating the parish Mass in the Abbey church at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, the monks said evening prayer in the Great Hall, the former Abbey church, also at 5 pm. I wished I had been there to experience that, since it was the first time we’d celebrated evening prayer there in decades. But alas, I was busy.
+The pictures in today’s post begin with one of the abbey church, followed by a photo of the abbot’s throne, above which is a painting on canvass that used to hang above the altar in the old abbey church during the Christmas season. We’d not used it in nearly sixty years, and it fit beautifully in the spot where it was hung. Brother Clement painted it on canvass in the 1930s. Next is a photo of a decorated tree in the baptistry, and then follows the Christmas tree in the Great Hall. Last is a photo of the abbey church, facing the great window.