Thursday, December 25, 2003

The Thoroughly Modern Manger

(Christmas 2003: This homily was given on December 25, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 2: 1-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christmas 2003]

Thoroughly Modern Millie: That was the title of a Julie Andrews’ film which came out in theaters way back in 1967. (If you’re old enough, you might remember it.)

Well, the title of this Christmas homily is a slight variation on that theme: It’s “The Thoroughly Modern Manger.”

Now, on the one hand, there’s nothing at all modern about a crèche display like the one we have here in our church this morning. That should be obvious. We’re looking at a scene from 2,000 years ago, a snapshot from a cave or stable located in a far distant part of the world, in a culture that was certainly very primitive (at least by our standards).

And yet, on a deeper level, it’s really very modern. In fact, I would say that what you are looking at in this crèche scene (or in any crèche display) is actually one part of a two-dimensional picture of the modern world. The other dimension of the picture is its background—which is present, although it’s not seen immediately with the naked eye.

The Christmas crèche, plus its background, equals the world in which we live: modern, technological, sophisticated—the most advanced civilization in human history.

Which brings us to what I would call the crucial question of Christmas for each of us: Which part of the picture am I in at the present time? Am I somewhere in this scene, or am I in the background?

Fr. Ray, this sounds awfully confusing!

Not at all! It’s really quite easy to understand.

Think about the original Christmas event. Who were the people in the background when that glorious moment arrived, and the Son of God took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary?

Well, there were actually many people in that location, but the most noteworthy among them (at least according to the Bible) were the innkeepers of Bethlehem, and King Herod.

Both rejected Jesus (which is the key point to remember)—although they did it for very different reasons. The innkeepers rejected our Lord simply because he inconvenienced them: “Sorry, Jesus, but there’s no room for you here. Go somewhere else, and take Mary and Joseph with you. We can’t be bothered.”

Herod, on the other hand, rejected our Lord out of fear. He perceived Jesus to be a direct threat to his power and security. Imagine, a big, tough king threatened by a little baby just out of the womb! Incredible—but true!

And yet, I ask you this morning: Aren’t these the very same reasons why Jesus Christ is rejected today, in the year 2003? Aren’t these the very same reasons why many people—even some professed Catholics—reject the authoritative teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals?

“I don’t want to be inconvenienced by having to go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day.”

“I don’t want to be inconvenienced by having another child.”

“I don’t want to be inconvenienced by restraining my passions and desires.”

“Jesus and his Church threaten my “freedom” to do what I want; they threaten my freedom of choice; they threaten my rights as an American!”

And then there are the modern-day Herods who want to eliminate all Christian symbols and influences from our culture. Thus every year (as we all know) there are numerous lawsuits filed in this country concerning the display of crèches on public property, and the telling of the true Christmas story in public schools, and the singing of Christmas carols in government buildings.

In much the same spirit, Central Michigan University issued guidelines to its students this year entitled, “How to Celebrate Christmas Without Offense.” Like paranoid King Herod, the officials at Central Michigan consider Jesus Christ to be deeply threatening and offensive, so much so that they find themselves compelled to warn their students about him! (I wonder if they’ll feel the same way about our Lord on Judgment Day?)

But enough of those in the background. When we stop and look at the crèche itself, we see something very different—thank God!

First of all, we see two people—Joseph and Mary—who were also inconvenienced, especially in the days and weeks surrounding our Lord’s birth. In fact, they were more inconvenienced than all the innkeepers of Bethlehem put together! And yet, they didn’t reject the Son of God. Quite oppositely, they responded to the inconveniences they faced by making all the necessary sacrifices, and by welcoming the child Jesus into the world with love and gratitude.

And so they are role models for many. For example, they’re role models for all women who find themselves in difficult, inconvenient pregnancies; they’re role models for all parents who are struggling to make ends meet; they’re role models for all of us who are challenged to love others and be patient with others who inconvenience us in various ways.

And then there are the shepherds and the wise men. They complete the scene (at least as far as human beings are concerned). Bishop Fulton Sheen had a marvelous way of speaking about these great, but very humble, men. He used to say, “There were only two classes of people who made it to the manger of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago: the very simple, and the very learned—shepherds and wise men—shepherds: those who know they know nothing; and wise men: those who know they do not know everything.”

The shepherds represent those many simple believers throughout the world who love God and aren’t ashamed of their faith—like the nice, old, Italian lady from our parish (one of my communion calls)—who spent two weeks decorating her house for Christmas, and who doesn’t hesitate to tell people that Jesus helped her do it.

A simple woman with a deep, sincere faith.

The shepherds also represent those who sometimes do not understand the ways of God, but who still believe, who still cling to their faith (like the believing couple from our parish who lost their 2 year-old son a few weeks ago). Remember, the shepherds did not fully understand the revelation the angel gave to them that holy night as they were tending their flocks, but they still believed it.

The magi—the wise men—represent the learned of our world who know that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive categories; they represent those who understand that religion and science are not enemies (as our post-modern society would have us believe). In other words, they represent the truly enlightened: those whose earthly knowledge leads them, not away from God, but to a deeper reverence for God—and a deeper respect for his eternal law.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of these wise men and women out there right now, but we can take heart in the fact that their number has grown significantly in recent years, much to the chagrin of the atheists and materialists.

So there you have it: The Thoroughly Modern Manger. It’s really as up-to-date as today’s newspaper.
Are you in it, or are you in the background?

May the Lord help each of us to give an honest answer to that question this morning.

Of course, the good news is: if you find yourself in the background at the present moment, there is still time to get into the crèche itself. In fact, I think that’s the reason the baby Jesus has his arms outstretched in almost every manger scene. It’s a welcoming sign to the “innkeepers” and even the “Herods” of the modern world.

He’s inviting them in; he’s inviting them to repent; he’s inviting them home.

Let us pray that many of them will accept his invitation this Christmas.