Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Let the Child in!

Mass for Christmas during the Night
2007 - Rosary Monastery - St. Ann’s
Port of Spain, Trinidad

Isaiah 9:1-6
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

“’And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’. And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace…’”

I don’t know about you but I’ve always felt sort of left out when people start speaking about their conversion experiences. As long as it was just televangelists or non-Catholic types knocking on your door of a Saturday, bragging about the date and time their lives had changed having accepted Jesus, it was something I guess one could write off as a bit unbalanced and maybe even untrue. Truth to be told, even Catholic charismatic conversions never worried me much. But if none of that seems right doesn’t there still have to be something that we’ll simply call “growth in holiness”, change, betterment, or progress even in the life of a rank and file Catholic Christian? Shouldn’t the word “conversion” have a meaning for me too? Of course it should!

We’ve just finished a preparatory season in purple: Advent. Where do we find ourselves tonight? Has Advent helped us prepare for Christmas? Are our hearts more open to the Lord who comes? Do we live our lives watching and waiting for the Lord? Is He my hope and my salvation? This is a very tough kind of examination of conscience to make, because it’s not as concrete as pinpointing sins of thought, word or deed, action or omission. In fact, I’d probably say it may even be unwise to try and measure our growth in the spiritual life that way if you, like me, can’t really point to some earthshaking conversion experience like being knocked off your high horse as St. Paul was on the way to Damascus. How does an average Catholic check himself or herself to see how things are going (remembering, please, that we’ve always been taught, and rightly so, to mistrust emotion or sentiment as the measure of our closeness to God)? We cannot, however, excuse ourselves from this type of examination of conscience, this kind of check on our devotion, on how or whether we are living for the Lord. The powerful readings of this Mass in the Night for Christmas are evidence enough that the Light, Who is Christ, shines in and changes the hearts of all the people. What difference does my baptism make in my life?

As I say, this is not an easy check. When all else fails, we can look to the lives of the saints to find a mirror, a solid point of reference for measuring how we are doing in our own lives. Thanks be to God there are lots of saints from every day and time and nearly all walks of life! If you look hard enough there has to be some saint you can identify with or who can be a model and a challenge to help you on your own path to holiness. Now maybe my early life wasn’t that of a “child-star-saint” like St. Catherine of Siena or the Little Flower, like young Aloysius Gonzaga or Dominic Savio. I certainly was not a bad boy, but in all honesty it would be hard to point to heroic goodness in those tender years of my life. Besides, they all died young and holy – I must keep looking. Let us get on to grown up saints and repentant sinners, like St. Paul or St. Peter, like St. Mary Magdalene, or if we dare mention him in a Dominican house, like St. Ignatius Loyola! If a lightning conversion hasn’t taken place, what has happened in my life? Do I belong (like I should) to God with all my heart, all my soul and strength, regardless of my age and state in life?

“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone… For there is a child born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counselor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace”.

Isaiah’s prophecy simply speaks of hope and of powerful, earthshaking change. Once the child is born, once the son is given, nothing can be the same. How indeed has the Birth at Bethlehem, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, and Judgment before Pilate, the trudge up to Calvary… how has the Glory of Easter changed me?

I don’t know if my mother could pinpoint the date during my adolescence or preadolescence – I surely couldn’t tell you when – but I can remember very clearly awakening one evening after supper to the realization that my parents loved me very much and I hadn’t really shown them my love or appreciation in return. Having to do something and not knowing what (remember an adolescent), I walked out into the kitchen and washed the dishes. My suspicion is that something similar happens when we give ourselves to God, when we finally recognize how much He loves us and how little we have done in return. But how in my life of faith do I walk out into the kitchen to do the dishes for Jesus when the truth of who he is for the world dawns on me?

St. Paul tells Titus and he tells us: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Christ Jesus. He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own…”

“…we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come…”

Among the voluntary sacrifices we used to suggest to children as a way of bringing joy to their parents and sharing in the sufferings of Christ was going out to the kitchen and doing the dishes without being asked. At the very end of the popular novel, “The Lord of the Rings”, after all the incredible scenes which were painted, the little heroes of the epic story are faced back home with perhaps the biggest challenge of all three volumes of the book, namely together to stand up and say “no” to evil, reclaiming their homes and their land from a wicked group of bullies. They win that victory too and it is perhaps their greatest. Real conversion in the life of a follower of Christ is something like that – it’s not flashy, it’s a roll up your sleeves and get-to-work kind of thing.

The birth of the savior, Christ the Lord, is heralded to the least, to the shepherds, by an angel who gave them the great sign of a bundled up, baby boy, lying in a manger. We’re not talking about show time or ecstasy. Handel’s Alleluia Chorus is not the interpretive key for Christmas but rather the hymn “Silent Night” is.

Come to Bethlehem! Come with all your heart and soul! I am sure Mary will let you hold the baby. Rejoice! Rejoice in hope! The Wonder-Counselor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace” is here in our midst. Ultimately salvation is accomplished as our hearts open and we let the Child in, not as we slay the dragon, so to speak, but rather as we walk out to the kitchen to do the dishes without being asked.

Maybe this is all too much of a parable. But too many pious folk fool themselves into believing that they are the righteous and that the crown is theirs, as they sit comfortably with the innkeeper while the Child remains outdoors in the stable. Open your hearts to Christmas! Follow the angel’s invitation to go to the stable in Bethlehem! Leave lots of things aside for the sake of recognizing the son of David, born for us and for us given!

Between Christmas and Boxing Day a lot of food is prepared and here in this country many family rituals are replayed and a lot of socializing is done. It’s a favorite time of year for some and a source of almost desperate anxiety for others. Don’t, no matter how your spend these days, don’t mistake the true meaning of Christmas: it’s above all a time to give ourselves to God, a time when we can finally recognize how much He loves us and how little we have done in return. Keep the angels, the shepherds, the starkness of Bethlehem and its stable, keep the helpless baby boy, who is our savior, always before your mind’s eye. Let Christmas be the date and time of your conversion! Live your life in profound gratitude, wonder and awe! Respond to the love of the Christ Child; react like the shepherds or simply do the dishes without being asked!

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