Christmas – December 25, 2019 

Welcome to Saint Peter’s Cathedral for this celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Welcome to our faithful parishioners who are with us every week.  Welcome to the friends of our Cathedral parish and those of you are visiting with your families and loved ones.  And welcome to those of you from other religious and faith traditions.  You honor us with your presence and we hope you feel at home.

At some point today, take a look at our manger scene here in the Cathedral or even at the one that you may have in your own home.  The image of the holy family and all of the visitors to the cave in Bethlehem is rather peaceful and calm, isn’t it?  The scene is almost otherworldly, dissociated from our complicated lives.

To truly understand the miracle and blessing of Christmas, however, I’d suggest that we not get too comfortable with this pristine representation of Jesus’ birth.  Nor should we think that we need to run away from the upheaval, the noise and the upset of our lives and our world to experience the Holy – the presence of God in our lives.  …  What do I mean by such statements?  Simply put, while the image of Bethlehem is frozen in time, it was home to Jesus for a very short time.  The Holy Family eventually returned to Nazareth, Jesus grew up and engaged the mission of heaven – in a world turned upside down.

Because of our familiarity with the Christmas story, we can easily miss the significance of the manner in which Jesus entered our world and our lives.  The announcement of the Messiah’s birth to poor, marginalized shepherds whose lives were always unsettled reflects the focus of Saint Luke’s gospel.  Saint Luke constantly reminds us that it is the poor, the outcast, the broken and the rejected who readily embrace the preaching of Jesus.  …  And why the poor?  Because unlike those of us who are too often distracted or consoled by material wealth, the poor know that they are in need of God’s love and mercy.  We sometimes forget!

Earlier this month, I returned from a weeklong working trip to Rome, along with the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Most every day, I found myself walking across the great piazza in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, side by side with tourists, religious sisters, cardinals, shopkeepers and workers.  And interspersed among all of us were the poor – beggars looking for a few coins – hoping to find some food – seeking a place to rest.  No doubt, a few of these individuals may have been less than noble in their efforts.  Most, however, are broken souls, suffering because of want for food, clothing and shelter.  The poorest of the poor.

More than once, I placed a few coins into the hands of some of these poor individuals – quickly – without engaging the person – probably more to assuage my own sense of guilt for having warm clothing and a full stomach while they had so little.  One day, however, I experienced something that I never expected.

My path crossed that of a young boy, probably around ten years of age, who was quite obviously a tourist traveling with his family.  I watched him as he placed a coin in a cup held by a poor, old woman and then quite intentionally paused, looked at the woman and smiled.  No words were exchanged, but to my surprise, the woman smiled back.

As I walked away from that very brief, chance encounter, my eyes immediately landed upon the massive nativity scene being constructed in the midst of Saint Peter’s Square.  While some might accuse me of overthinking an event that occurs countless times every day, for me at least, that exchange between a young boy and a poor old woman brought to life what took place in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago.

I’d suggest that young boy represented the goodness of God who reached into our broken lives on that first Christmas, giving us hope and a way forward amid the upheaval of our world.  That young boy in Saint Peter’s Square made no distinction about the worthiness of that poor woman.  He simply saw a suffering soul in need of love and compassion.  And that, my brothers and sisters, is what we celebrate this day.

Out of a passionate love for his creation, God chose to be with us – in our losses and grief, our poverty, our broken relationships, our scandals, our addictions, our misguided choices and in our suffering and death.  In all of these experiences and more, God embraced our lives and walks with us, giving us hope, even as his own life which ended in death gave way to life and resurrection.

It’s not by accident that the very first words spoken in Saint Luke’s gospel are words of consolation and hope shared with poor shepherds who represent a broken, suffering, searching people.  “Do not be afraid.  …  A savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”(Luke 2:10, 11).  

Christmas will come and go and it may very well seem that everything will continue the same as before.  But it doesn’t!  For the truth is, in Jesus’ birth into our world and our lives, something miraculous occurred.  God has accepted us.  God has loved us.  And God has filled our depths with his grace.  Because God has so loved us then, every life has value and worth.  And we need to accept that reality.

Some might question how we come to know and feel the embrace of God’s love.  I’d suggest that all we need do is look to those valued lives that God places in our paths each day, like the young boy who touched the broken heart of a poor, old woman in Saint Peter’s Square.  …  Look to the simple things of life to which we all have access – our families gathered together – a word of forgiveness – the smile of an aging parent – the innocent embrace of a child – the kindness of a friend – the consolation and peace of the Eucharist that we share in this time of worship and prayer.

Such experiences, my friends, won’t radically change our lives or our world.  They do, however, have the power to give us hope if we receive them carefully enough.  Pope Francis put it best:  Each year, Christmas gives us the certainty that God’s light will continue to shine, despite the brokenness of our world. 

God’s light does indeed shine far more brightly than we might realize.  …  To be sure, we will see it if we are humble enough to admit our need for a Savior and, in turn, if we’re generous enough to follow the pattern of Jesus’ life in love and service of our sisters and brothers.  …  In so doing, through the miracle of God, we will discover just how blessed we are and the true reason for our hope!

God bless you and Merry Christmas!