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The following is the Christmas homily given by Springfield Bishop Timothy McDonnell at St. Michael’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve.
It was a little different when I was a youngster. December 24th, for example, was a day of fast and abstinence in keeping with a very ancient tradition of “fast before feast.” The very Catholic custom of salt cod for dinner on Christmas Eve was as much a part of my parents’ Irish upbringing as was the case in the Mediterranean countries celebrating Christmas. You might say salt cod (baccala, bacalao, and a hundred variations of the name) was the food of Christmas Eve for Catholics in many parts of Europe in days gone by – and still is in many places; and the custom was carried intact across the Atlantic: a fish supper it was for us on Christmas Eve.
Afterwards, we had another custom, more local to our family. We read. It wasn’t “The Night Before Christmas” that was read in our house each Christmas Eve of my youth, but a more ambitious undertaking. From after supper until the family was ready to leave the house for Midnight Mass, we’d read the whole of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It’s not that long a story, but it’s a powerful one, with its characters – Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley’s Ghost and the three Christmas Ghosts (Past, Present and Yet To Come), and of course Tiny Tim – all known far and wide, although perhaps nowadays more through movies and television than from the written word.
Of course, there were interruptions. My aunt would journey across the Bronx by bus to join us late in the evening. Neighbors would stop by to offer a “Merry Christmas.” But each year, we completed the story and felt better for having heard it anew. Why? I believe because it speaks to the possibility of transformation, of redemption, of understanding what the first Christmas came to mean for the world.
Scrooge had slowly, inexorably, let the world beat him down – he had made the world and the material things in it his life’s focus. He had forgotten that he was made better than he had become. The three Ghosts remind him of what he was, of what he is, and of what he yet may be. The spark of humanity, of humaneness, of grace, slowly comes to life within him. And Scrooge on Christmas morning is a man transformed.
When the reading was finished, when we were all dressed, we were ready for Midnight Mass. (Back then, Midnight Mass was the earliest of Masses – the vigil Masses were yet to be introduced.) So, trudging out to Midnight Mass, we were ready to relish the possibilities that the birth of Christ has brought about. For Christmas reminds us that God loves us, that God loves the world so much that He sent His only Son to be one of us, to be one with us, to give his own life for every one of us without exception so much does he love us.
Midnight Mass and every Mass remind us of that love. Each Mass recalls the culmination of that love when Christ gave himself for us on Calvary, each Mass reminds us that the life the Son of God undertook as one of us in the Virgin’s womb, the life manifested to the world that first Christmas, the life taken cruelly away on the cross, is also the life that was restored to us on Easter, the life that is with us always. At each Mass, we find Christ alive. At each Mass, Christ looks to find us – that our lives may be transformed continually into all God would have us be.
If there were no presents, no cards, no trees, no lights, no candles, no carols, no wreaths, no holly, no mistletoe, no yule log fire, no Scrooge no salt cod, no Santa, there would still be Christmas – so long as we let Christ into our midst, into our hearts. All those things I mentioned are part of the trimmings of Christmas; Christ is what it’s all about. And that’s what sometimes people forget. That’s why this year throughout the Diocese, we’re beginning CHRIST MASS – a way to remind all of us of the need we each have for the Mass, to need we have to take part in Mass. CHRIST MASS is an invitation to everyone, whether we’re always at Mass or may have drifted away from it; it’s an invitation to experience anew God’s presence in our midst, Christ’s desire to share himself with us in Holy Communion.
Driving through western Massachusetts this Christmas season, you’ll see lights everywhere — red, orange, green, yellow, blue, and white. Those lights brightening up the darkness of our world are obviously signs and symbols.
But who would understand them if the Christmas story were not remembered and told? The story about how people had been looking for Him all through the ages. How even today so many are hoping for a redeemer. And how finally He came from God — God’s gift to the world, a light brightening its darkness.
We have to tell this story to ourselves, and invite others to hear it; we have to remind ourselves how in our own world, which often seems so frustrating and lonely, new life was born. We have to tell it to those around us, to give them the hope they need so very much. We have to tell it especially to children, just as more than likely we heard it told from our parents. And we have to tell it anew to those who may find themselves somewhat apart from the family of faith. Christmas and CHRIST MASS is for everyone.
It is the most profound story in the world, if you come to think of it, about God starting a new life in the midst of us, of God squeezing into our world. It’s an ongoing story of people welcoming him in, of our remembering what Christmas truly is all about: God so loved the world that He sent us his only Son.
So, I say it again: if there were no presents, no cards, no trees, no lights, no candles, no carols, no wreaths, no holly, no mistletoe, no yule log fire, no Scrooge, no salt cod, no Santa, there would still be Christmas – so long as we let Christ into our midst, into our hearts. All those things I mentioned are part of the trimmings of Christmas; Jesus is what it’s all about. He is the light come to shine in our midst; unto us is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
Today, Christ is born anew – it’s not the Christ of Bethlehem. He grew up; He grew in wisdom, age and grace; He lived and died. The shadow of the cross fell on the Christmas crib. But there is more to the story; for He rose from the dead. He is alive. It is the risen Christ now, with Bethlehem and Nazareth and Calvary behind Him. It is the Risen Christ Who is present here in our midst at this Mass, at every Mass.
Wherever two or three are gathered, He said, He would be in their midst, gathered as we are here today. He is here with us today: not the baby of Bethlehem, but the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Wonder Counselor, the Prince of Peace, the God made man. He is here today.
He is here at this Eucharist, in the transformed bread and wine, and we celebrate that presence, reminded that He is as real in the Eucharist as He was at Bethlehem. We are as much able to adore Him in the tabernacle as the shepherds adored Him in the stable.
Today is His birthday, and we won’t let its meaning be forgotten. We know that the babe of Bethlehem, now the Risen Lord, is alive today in us – in every one, in our midst. We have let him in and we invite everyone to join us. And that’s the reason we shout: Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Ve-so-wee Svi-ont, Joyeux Noel, Feliz Natal, Buon Natale, Chuc Giang Sinh Vui Ve, Nollaig shona. For Christ is born anew today – Christ is alive, Christ is here, Christ is in each of us who let Him in. Merry Christmas!
The journey that began in Jerusalem continues for Catholics today
By Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell
Bishop of Springfield
It was the second time in less than a year that Mary had made the long journey up to Jerusalem.
The first time she had gone to see her cousin, Elizabeth, following that strange day when Gabriel, the angelic messenger, had asked her to be the mother of the Messiah. He had told her about Elizabeth and she knew her older cousin would need her help; so, she joined the caravan to make the long trip to Ain Karim, the little village a few miles southwest of Jerusalem where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived.
So much had happened since then. Elizabeth’s baby boy, John, was a thriving infant. Mary had returned to Nazareth. There, now as Joseph’s wife, she had moved away from the only home she had ever known, left behind her parents, Joachim and Anne, moved out of the familiar setting where she had grown up, put her childhood behind her, and moved into Joseph’s house. It was there she had expected she would give birth to her child.
Circumstances from the outside world intervened. Joseph was to be among those enumerated in the Roman census, and Mary, as his wife, would have to travel with him. Off to Bethlehem, the City of David, south of Jerusalem, Joseph’s ancestral home must they go, there to be enrolled in the census.
This second caravan was different because strong, protective Joseph was there with her on the journey. Still, heavy with child, she wondered if she would be able to return home to give birth or if the jogging of the journey might bring her to labor.
So much to reflect upon; so much to think about; so much to be concerned about. She knew from her earlier journey to Elizabeth that the average caravan from Nazareth to Jerusalem took approximately five days. Then, they would have to travel on the road south from Jerusalem another few miles to Bethlehem.
They would not be alone. Many whose ancestral home was Bethlehem were going there as well. In the last few miles, Mary began to realize the time for the birth of her child was approaching. Faced with the impending birth, Joseph sought shelter, but the town was crowded, filled to overflowing because of the census.
There was no place to stay, until some kind soul pointed out the stable where at least there would be some protection from the elements. There Mary gave birth to her child. There the Word Incarnate, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, was born.
In many ways this past year has been for a number of Catholics in western Massachusetts what it was for Mary. Familiar surroundings have been left behind; new challenges have arisen; new places come to the fore. Yet, as with Mary, their focus has remained on her Son.
No matter where we are, no matter what changes come into our lives, Christ remains the focus, Christ is at the heart of who we are as Catholics, Christ made present for us at Mass on the altar wherever we may be as truly as he was made present that first Christmas.
Christmas serves as a reminder that we have not here a lasting city; what lasts is Christ who leads us into eternity. We are called to be the pilgrim people who follow him. We are called from the caravan of life to answer with Mary, “Be it done to me according to your Word.”
Whether young like Mary at the time of the Incarnation, or old as they say Elizabeth was at the time of John the Baptist’s birth, God calls us to follow the child who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached in Galilee, died in Jerusalem, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father where he promises that, as he came at Bethlehem, so will he return at the end of time to make all things right.
May we who are privileged to experience his presence in Mass and the sacraments celebrate the fact that we have been blessed with the gift of faith in him who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.
Wherever you are, have a Blessed Christmas!