Last week I paid a visit to the home of one of my nieces who gathered together her mother, and her brothers and sisters, for a pre-Christmas get-together. When I walked in, there were nieces and nephews everywhere and grandnieces and grandnephews covering every inch of available floor space.
Get that many people together and there’s a certain amount of noise, the kind I’m no longer used to. Come to think of it, the grandnieces and grandnephews weren’t as noisy as their parents. In that part of my family three of my nephews are lawyers, as was their father, and one is married to a lawyer. And everyone knows that lawyers can get pretty loud.
Somewhere in the midst of all this commotion, my sister-in-law looked at the gathering and said to me: “Where did all these come from?” I said, “You started it.” “You mean I’m to blame for all this?” she said. I’m sure there are worse things to be blamed for. About that time they were looking through old pictures of the family, photos of when these nieces and nephews were very young. It brought back a lot of memories, but it also reminded me of the cycle of life, of memories of my own childhood, of the next generation coming along, and now another generation moving into adulthood.
Who are all these people? Where did they come from? Better yet, where are they going? I look at my nieces and nephews and conclude, as we say in Minnesotan, “They’re not such a bad lot at that!” And I look at their children ranging in age from their twenties down to about two. And I ask myself: what will these children become? What will their lives be like?
In any given two-hour period in such a gathering you’ll find laughter and tears among the children, loving hugs and sudden anger, ecstatic happiness and misery deep enough to announce the end of the world. Sometimes children try out each of these moods in succession to see which one gives the most satisfaction.
Several weeks ago I visited another monastery and was given a tour of the city where it is situated. We stopped to see one of the churches in the city and a young boy offered to be our guide there. He was twelve years old but actually looked a bit younger than that. Connected to the church was a museum, and the young lad knew more about it than we expected him to know. We came upon a picture of a saint with an inscription in Latin and the boy wanted to know what it meant. It said something to the effect that we are to love God with our heart, soul, and whole being. The boy repeated it and then very spontaneously said, “I trust God with everything in me!” Someone had planted a good seed of trust in him, had taken the responsibility to see to it that he at least heard the word of God, and then trusted God to let the seed of that word form him into a believer.
With that in mind I looked especially at my grandnieces and grandnephews and asked myself the question: What would I hope for them? I know they will have a lot of success in their lives, the kind that people dream of having. But they’ll also know sorrow. There will be sickness and death to deal with. That happens in everybody’s life. There will be great hopes realized but disappointments as well. They will enjoy the security of safe neighborhoods to live in – at least we would want that, but they’ll also know danger, face the reality of war in the world, see useless violence used to address problems that cannot be solved by violence. I would wish for them sight to see beautiful scenery and beautiful people. I hope they will enjoy good health, do well in school, find the vocation in life that will make use of their talents and bring satisfaction to them and service to others.
But I want much more than that for them. I want to hand on to them what I have received, and that is the good news of Jesus Christ. I would want them to welcome him in the poor who are born in conditions of poverty as was he. I would want them to appreciate the meaning of his birth, his life and death and resurrection; that he carried in him the very dignity of God but taught us to recognize our own dignity because we are made in the image and likeness of God.
I would hope that they would not run away from the reality of sin in the world, sin that brings wars, injustices that destroy the dignity of people, hatred that devastates families and communities and countries and the whole world. I want them to know these things so that they learn to appreciate the one whose offer of salvation is the remedy for these evils.
Saint Benedict in his fifteen hundred year old Rule acknowledges that our hearts are normally drawn compassionately to the very young and the very old. We are touched by their helplessness, the not yet acquired full strength of children or the now diminishing powers of the old. On the other hand, many times we run away from such powerlessness, especially when it reminds us of our own limitations and unmet and maybe unmeetable needs. Yet it is exactly to meet unmeetable needs that Jesus was born. He came in helplessness, embraced our human condition, and revealed through weakness the power of God.
How often we witness beauty in powerlessness, majesty in the decreasing powers of old age. There is no need to romanticize such observations because none of us values weakness enough to embrace it. Yet that is exactly what the Son of God did. And that is what we focus on with this feast of the Birth of Jesus Christ.
A whole lifetime could be spent unraveling the meaning of this feast and the life of Jesus, and still we would not come to the deepest reality of who Jesus is. Only in the end when we are purified fully will we be able to look upon his glory and see not only who he is but who we are as well. This is the practicality of the mystery here related to us, that we can behold in one human being the reality of being created in the image and likeness of God, to appreciate our adoption by beholding the One who is Son by nature.
If Jesus Christ “is the reflection of God’s glory and bears the impress of God’s own being,” then we are invited to recognize our own dignity as people who in him are also the reflection of God’s glory and bear the impress of God’s own being.
If the Son of God came as reconciler, then we are to be reconcilers. If he came with forgiveness, then we are to forgive. If he came as healer, then we are to heal and not wound. If the Word was made flesh to make God known, then our lives are to be a word of God’s love for all people. I f he came with a love that includes all, then our inclusive love must never reject those God loves. If we pray for the reign of God to come, then we are to accept the reign of God in our own lives.
This is what I would like my grandnieces and grandnephews to know and believe. But if they are to know it and believe it long after belief in Santa Claus has passed, then my life and the life of the Christian community must become the witnesses to what Jesus preached by his life. To recognize in the baby the presence of God, to recognize in oneself the dignity that is ours as co-heirs with him of the reign of God, to recognize in all other people the dignity that is theirs because they too are the image of God – all this is the fruit of the Christmas celebration. May the seed of God’s word form each one of us and all of us together so that we can say with a twelve year old boy: “I trust God with everything in me!”
HOMILY FOR CHRISTMAS 1997
– ABBOT TIMOTHY KELLY, OSB