Christmas Day, December 25, 2012

Today’s Readings

One of the more interesting chapters in my life was when I chaperoned some high school students to France. It was the first, and the last time I would chaperone high school students anywhere. Among the many interesting things that we saw, one visit in particular stands out in my mind. Many people are familiar with the caves of Lascaux, because of the multicolored drawings on the walls, made thousands of years ago.While it is not possible to see the actual Caves of Lascaux today (we came to realize that too many humans breeding out carbon dioxide turn the walls black), visitors can see an exact replica near the site, made as much as possible, to be an exact replica.  There are lesser known caves not too far away, with drawings even older.  It was at these caves at Rouffinac where our story takes place.

I knew we were in for some excitement, when, sitting in the back of the train that was about to take us into the caves, the French guide made the following statement. “Now limestone is a very soft rock. In fact you can push your finger right through it. Don’t do it.” Now if the goal is to keep high school students from pushing their fingers into the rock, I knew that this strategy was probably not the most effective. Each of us has had the experience, I think, where we want to do something simply because we are told not to do so. I felt it was important to add my words to the words of the French guide. “Now let us remember, that the drawings we are about to see on the inside of this cave, have been here for TEN THOUSAND YEARS!  We will not be known as the group that ruined the caves at Rouffinac.  If so much as a finger leaves this train, so help me I will CUT OFF YOUR ARM!”

Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit. But truth be told, I felt I should make a strong effort to impress upon the students the importance of respect for work that was tens of thousands of years old. And so into the cave we went. After a while, the train came to a stop, and the French guide all excited opened his arms wide and said “Look, there it is”. Just like the students, I was a little confused. This stretch of wall that we were being encouraged to look at by an excited travel guide did not appear to be any different than any of the other walls we had seen up to this point. And then, delighted in his own little joke, the guide pulled out a very small penlight flashlights and held parallel to the wall. What became clear were etchings on the wall that told the story.

But actually, the most exciting part of the tour was yet to come. Continuing on our journey, we stopped at another place, where the guide turned out all of the lights. For the first time in my life, I had the experience of pitch black. It was so dark, that holding my hands in front of my face, I could not see them. My first thought, were myriads of adolescent fingers poking holes in the limestone walls. But I was caught up in something I had never quite realized before. You can have light, or darkness, but not both. But we typically refer to as darkness, is simply a period where there is very low light. Light and darkness are mutually exclusive.

Such is the power of the commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ we celebrate today. The people, walking in darkness, have seen a great light. At a time of year, where darkness seems the most powerful, we celebrate the arrival of the light of Christ. We too realize one cannot have light and darkness. We walked as children of the light or as children of darkness. But not both.

Let us walk as children of the light, for indeed, there is much darkness around us. We have children killing children in large American cities like Chicago. We have ongoing violence throughout the Arab world and in other places where people escape, just to live. We have too many people in our country and around the world who do not have the basic needs of their lives met. We have too many communities who seek to make sense of the senseless, who try to heal from the broken events of the darkness.  For us, it may be the darkness of loneliness, illness, mourning, loss, hurtful experiences, a lost job, significant expenses that we are not sure to meet.  And in our own personal lives, sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the darkness.

In our lives, we can find ourselves confronted with a terminal illness in ourselves or in someone we love, Beacon Hill swallowed by the darkness. Struggling in a relationship with the spouse or a son or daughter or someone we don’t even know very well, can make us feel like the darkness wins but regardless, what we celebrate today is that light has overcome the darkness. We celebrate Christ is our light. The celebrate their profound act of love, God becomes one like us, one with us, Emmanuelle. And so, we walked as people of the light, being reminded again of the closeness of our God and God’s profound love.

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2012

Today’s Readings

One nice thing about being a priest, and not being too close to your parents geographically, is that you get to talk about them in the homily. While my parents know I talk about them sometimes in my homilies, it is easier to do so when you’re thousands of miles from where they live. Today’s readings reminded me of the time that my mother, for the first time in her life, took a flight to visit her sister who lived in Florida. Not having flown in a very large plane before, my mother asked me what the experience would be like. Answering honestly, I said that I didn’t think she would like takeoffs and landings, but that once we got in the air, things wouldn’t be so bad.

Now it’s important to remember that during these days it was still possible to smoke cigarettes on an airplane. And so my parents, seated in the back of the plane, which was the smoking section wearing two different seats than my brother and I who were in the non-smoking section. Course today we realized that technically we were all in the smoking section, thanks to the airplane,s recirculated air.  True to my words, my mother did not much enjoy the takeoffs and landings. Unfortunately, the flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Jacksonville, Florida, was among the roughest I’ve ever been on. The plane was flying into 500 mile an hour headwinds, and the plane bounced around in a way that helped to provide an experience of what the ball was like a pinball machine. In fact, I don’t believe we were allowed to unfasten our seat belts at any point during the flight. Needless to say, my mother was filled with more than a little bit of anxiety.

So many experiences of the divine Scripture, begin with the angel, or the Lord, saying to the individual, “Be not afraid.”  Given that it was common Jewish understanding that to see God met one died, such a command was often needed. Furthermore, simply being in the presence of an infinite God can be unsettling. It can be easy to forget that God is infinite. Faced with such awesomeness, we can be reminded by comparison we are rather insignificant.

Despite my words to my mother, “Be not afraid”, my mother was afraid. She had good reason to be afraid. My admonition “Be not afraid”  proved to be unreliable. I could not deliver on my promise the flight would be far easier once we were in the air. I was not dependable. Yet when God says “Be not afraid”, we know he has a track record of dependability. Before the visit from the Angel, Mary could not have imagined what her life would be like. And even with the appearance of the Angel, she needed to be reassured by God that his words were trustworthy and dependable. her trust in God, even when she did not understand the implications of that trust, and the consequences of her yes to God, was unwavering. She believed God was trustworthy. She was right.

After such horrible events in Newtown, Connecticut, our trust in God can be shaken.  We too need to be reassured that everything will be okay. because we know that God is dependable, unlike the assurances we sometimes give each other, we know God is reliable. This is because time and again God has proven his reliability. We know of no event more strikingly convincing than the death of Jesus on the cross. His death frees us from death, and while there still are many events where we become afraid, it is life death and resurrection of Jesus that assures us we need not be afraid. Unlike me, God keeps his promises.  God is dependable.

As we prepare for the commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, we know that once again we stand in need of God’s gentle promise that we need not be afraid because God is faithful. The coming of Jesus into our world in human form, reminds us that in the face of violence peace is possible. We need not be afraid. The coming of Jesus into our world in human form, reminds us that in the face of hunger God fills us. We need not be afraid. The coming of Jesus into our world of human form, reminds us that in sickness, suffering, and death, we stand in the healing presence of Jesus, the one who conquered death by his own death on the cross. We need not be afraid.

As we get ready to commemorate that dark cold night in Bethlehem, when God humbled himself to take on human form, to become one like us in all things but sin, we are reminded of the fidelity and love of God. We are reminded, that in spite of our sin, God never gives up on us, rather extends to us all the gift of mercy and forgiveness. The little baby born in such humble surroundings reminds us that God does everything possible to help us enter into his divine life. This Christmas, we are reminded, that even more than Hallmark, God cares enough to send the very best.