Christmas – December 25, 2022
Welcome to Saint Peter’s Cathedral for this celebration of the birth of Jesus. I am grateful for the presence of so many of you, our faithful parishioners, and I also welcome the friends of our Cathedral parish and those of you are visiting with your families and loved ones. We especially welcome those of you from other religious and faith traditions. You honor us with your presence and we hope you feel at home. And to our Jewish friends, who this year celebrate Hanukkah during these very days of Christmas, know of our special prayers for joy and peace.
This past summer, I was fortunate to travel to Ghana, Africa, with two of our priests. We went to meet the Bishop and faithful of the Diocese of Sunyani and especially the families of the eight priests and one religious sister from that diocese who are serving in some of our parishes here in our local Church. It was a powerful experience for us as we as we worshipped with thousands of faithful and visited parishes, hospitals, clinics and schools.
Yet, for all of the memorable places and people that we encountered, for me, the experience of visiting one small school located in the countryside miles from the city where we were staying will not soon be forgotten. While most of the schools that we visited looked very much like our own, this school – St. Stephen’s Preparatory School – stood out, not only because of its unique appearance but also because of a very important lesson that I learned from its students.
The school was situated in the midst of a tiny village consisting of simple, wooden houses with thatched roofs. There were no convenient markets or gas stations in the middle of the village – just a well where the villagers would go to pump water for their homes. In fact, there were no other buildings in the village except for a small cinderblock church – and the parish elementary school.
This school had no main entrance or hallway where trophies and artwork were displayed. No security checks. It simply consisted of wooden posts holding up a roof. The only walls that went from the floor to the ceiling were those that separated one classroom from another. The sidewalls of the classrooms were only about four feet high with no windows – just spaces for ventilation. There were no doors – just openings in the walls, with goats and chickens wandering around in the grass just beyond the classrooms. In fact, the only thing that approximated what we might see in our schools were well-worn blackboard.
Yet, the children were excited to meet us, enthusiastic and polite, with smiles that were contagious, despite the little they had. As I struggled to make sense of this, my visit with the second grade class stopped me in my tracks. They had just finished lunch, which consisted of something akin to a finely ground oatmeal – no grilled cheese, no chips, no pizza! After introducing us, the bishop who was our host asked the students a question. “What can you tell Bishop Bambera about God?” Hands went up and one little girl called out, “God loves us very much.” “Really?” I asked. “Yes – God loves us very much! And we love him in return by loving one another.”
What a lesson I learned that day! My experiences in that school and with so many of the people of Ghana suggested to me that the love of God that those children professed was real and authentic. And they believed in it not because of what they had – they had nothing – but because of who they were. They were simple souls entrusted with a deep belief and respect for the power of God in their lives and the recognition of God’s presence in the world and in one another. They weren’t distracted by the things with which we often consume ourselves – things that cause us to miss where God’s presence and peace is found. … I couldn’t help but compare that school and its children to Bethlehem. Animals walking about. No material comforts. Just an awareness of the miracle of God’s love.
Not long ago, Pope Francis reflected upon the gospel passage just proclaimed. “In the darkness, a light shines. An angel appears, the glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds and finally the message awaited for centuries is heard: ‘To you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:11). The angel goes on to say something surprising. He tells the shepherds how to recognize the God who has come down to earth. You will find a baby lying in the poverty of a manger. No more bright lights or choirs of angels. Only a child. Nothing else. … That is where God is, in littleness – the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what really matters.”
These words of Pope Francis challenge all of us to reflect upon God’s way of doing things. From the moment of Jesus birth in Bethlehem, God has continually entered our lives in littleness and in the most unlikely of ways – in the birth of a child – in the face of a fragile, elderly parent – in the poor wandering our streets – in immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families – and in simple gifts of bread and wine transformed into the living presence of God.
Sadly, we so often look in the wrong places for God and for meaning and purpose in our lives, don’t we? We look to things and wonder why they don’t make us happy. We self-righteously express contempt for those who are different from ourselves and sow seeds of division. We try to limit God’s love to those whom we think are worthy of it. And then we wonder why our world is unsettled – our hearts uneasy – our families broken – and why far too many are suffering because of war and greed in Ukraine, the Middle East, Africa, and in our own land.
Yet, in a world that’s been turned upside down, we are once again blessed with the opportunity to embrace the good news of Christmas, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). … Everyone! … Everyone!
My friends, despite all of our abilities, we are powerless to save ourselves and so desperately in need of the presence of Jesus in our lives. May we not be too proud to allow those simple words spoken by a little girl in Ghana to teach us how best to best navigate our complicated lives and find peace, come what may. … Do you recall their words? “God loves us very much! And we love him in return by the love we have for one another.”
Therein brothers and sisters, we discover the true blessing of this great feast and why this day gives us reason to rejoice! God bless you and Merry Christmas!