Christmas – December 25, 2023
Welcome to Saint Peter’s Cathedral for this celebration of the birth of Jesus. What a blessing it is to join with so many of you: our faithful parishioners, friends of the Cathedral and those of you visiting with your families and loved ones. Welcome also to 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, please know of our prayers for peace for you and for so many others in the Holy Land, in Ukraine and throughout our world. May the message of this day so permeate our hearts that peace will one day finally become a reality for all people.
Eight hundred years ago on this very night, a cherished tradition was born. Saint Francis was returning from Rome to Assisi and along the way, he stopped in the little Italian town of Greccio. Having visited the Holy Land some time before, the caves in Greccio reminded him of the countryside of Bethlehem. So Francis asked a local man to help him celebrate with the faithful of the town the holy night of the first Christmas by replicating the original scene in Bethlehem.
Saint Francis’ biographers described in detail what then took place in Greccio. “On December 25th, friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up the holy night. When Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio, there were no statues – just a manger, an ox and a donkey; the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.”
That Christmas night, eight centuries ago, began the tradition of the nativity scene that we maintain here in our Cathedral, in churches throughout Christendom and in most of our homes as well. For all its familiarity, we would do well to pause during this sacred season to reflect upon its heart. Like the faithful people of Greccio, Italy, look beyond the statues or figurines and imagine yourself in a cave, with animals, straw, dirt and a promise provided by a newborn baby boy.
The promise is that in Jesus, God would immerse himself in our world and in the ordinariness of human life with all its beauty and peace, its brokenness and pain, its sin and suffering. In coming into our lives as a baby born in a manger, God lowered himself so that he could stand beside us, not above or far from us, and we could walk with him on the path to his promise of life and peace.
Do you ever wonder about the closeness of God? We all do at times. I’d suggest that it’s that very closeness, even when we don’t feel it, that compels all of us to be here tonight and to proclaim our faith in the miracle of Christmas.
Sadly, we so often look in the wrong places for God and for meaning and purpose in our lives, don’t we? We look at things and wonder why they don’t make us happy. We self-righteously point fingers at those who are different than ourselves and unwittingly 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 countless numbers of souls are suffering in Israel, Ukraine, far too many places in our world and in our own land.
At the beginning of Advent, Pope Francis reflected upon the meaning and importance of the nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus. Listen to his words. “Why does the Christmas crèche arouse such wonder and move us so deeply? First, because it shows God’s tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness. … In Jesus, the Father has given us a brother who comes to seek us out whenever we are confused or lost, a loyal friend ever at our side. He gave us his Son who forgives us and frees us from our sins.”
“The nativity scene,” the Holy Father goes on, “shows God as he came into our world, but it also makes us reflect on how our life is a part of God’s own life. … It speaks of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us.”
These words compel us to reflect upon what we often fail to appreciate. From the moment of Jesus birth, 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 – in immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families – in those who suffer from the ravages of war – and in simple gifts of bread and wine, the living presence of God. … For this, we give thanks this night!
Brothers and sisters, the miracle of this day is that despite living in a world that’s been turned upside down, we are once again blessed with the opportunity to embrace the good news of Christmas – good news that proclaims God’s love and mercy to everyone who is humble and wise enough to know where to look to find it and how to keep it alive each day.
As Pope Francis proclaimed just a few days ago, “May we be in this world a ray of that light which shone forth from Bethlehem, bringing joy and peace to the hearts of all men and women.” … God bless you and Merry Christmas!
Previous Homilies 2023