Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Get Rid of Your Apple!

(Christmas 2007: This homily was given on December 25, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 1: 18-25.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christmas 2007]

I don’t often read a story during a homily, but today I’ll make an exception, because I think this is an exceptional story—an exceptional Christmas story. It was written by two French authors, Jerome and Jean Theraud, and it goes like this:

It was Bethlehem, the end of a long night. The star had just disappeared, and the last pilgrim had left the stable. The Virgin arranged the straw: at last the Child could sleep. But who can sleep the night of Christmas? Gently the door opens, so gently that it seems more like the wind was pushing it than a hand. A woman appears on the threshold, covered with rags. She was so old and wrinkled that you would have thought her mouth was one more deep wrinkle in a face the color of dirt. A fearful chill came over Mary when she saw her, as if a malicious fairy had come into the room. Fortunately Jesus was asleep. The ass and the ox placidly continued munching their hay, as if there was nothing unusual, as if they had known her forever. The Virgin didn’t take her eyes off her. The woman walked slowly, each step seeming to take centuries. She continued, the old woman, and approached the manger. Thank God, Jesus was still sleeping. How can one sleep on Christmas night? Suddenly he opened his eyelids. His mother was completely astonished to see that the eyes of the old woman and his eyes were exactly the same, they both shone with the same hope. The old woman sank down on the straw. One hand disappeared into her rags, looking for something, taking ages to find it. Mary watched her closely, still concerned. The animals watched her too, but always without surprise, as if they knew beforehand what was going to happen. Finally, after a long time, slowly, tiredly, the old woman pulls out of her clothes a little object hidden in her hand, and she gives it to the child. After all the treasures of the Wise Men and the offerings of the Shepherds, what could this present be? From where she was, Mary could not tell. She saw only the shoulders bowed down, the woman’s back, bent over from age, now bent over even more before the crib, and the Child within it. The ox and the ass watched, and were not amazed. The woman stayed bowed before the Child a long time. Finally she arose, as if relieved from a great weight which had dragged her to the ground. Her shoulders were no longer bowed down, her head almost touched the low roof, her face seemed miraculously renewed, as if she was finding once more the vigor of her youth. She turned from the crib, smiled at Mary, and went out through the door into the dawning day. Finally Mary could see the mysterious present. An apple, a little apple, having within it all the sin of the world, given to the baby Jesus by Eve, for it was her, the old woman, who had come to worship the Child born of her blood, who would save her from her sins. The apple of the original sin, and the sin of so many who would follow her. And the little red apple shone in the hands of the Child, as if it were the globe of the kingdom and of the new world which had just been born with the King.

If you understand that story, then you understand Christmas. At the beginning of human history, Eve thought that eating an apple would make her like God—or at least that’s what the devil had told her. But, as we all know, Satan lied! In reality, Eve’s sin ruined everything in her life (sin always ruins things): it ruined her relationship with her husband (they were never again “a happily married couple” in the same sense that they had been before the Fall); it led to tragedy in her family (out of envy her oldest son Cain murdered his younger brother Abel); it brought her pain: emotional pain, physical pain, spiritual pain—and it eventually led to her death: her physical death.

And even though I’m sure she was sorry for what she had done, she was forced to hold onto that apple, in a certain sense, from the moment she bit into it. She was forced to hold onto it for the rest of her earthly life—and to take it with her when she died!

That’s why she still had it in the story.

No one had the power to take it away—because everyone else, including her husband, Adam, had an apple of their own to deal with.

Only that baby in the manger could take it away—and Eve knew it! Why? Because only that baby in the manger had the ability to atone for a sin that was infinitely offensive to an infinitely holy God. He had that ability because he was God, and as such his actions had infinite power and value! You see, Eve’s sin (and Adam’s) had placed an incredibly huge “gap” between us and our Creator: a gap that, believe it or not, was even larger than the distance from one end of our universe to the other. Only someone who was both God and man could bridge a spiritual gap of that size! He could bridge it by performing an act of atonement for all the infinitely offensive sins of the human race (including yours and mine!). Since he was God and without sin, his act would be infinitely meritorious, and since he was man he could represent us before the heavenly Father, and win God’s forgiveness for every human being who sincerely repented—like Eve.

And that’s precisely what this baby did 33 years later on the Cross of Calvary: he made atonement for Eve’s sin and for every sin—which is why Acts 4: 12 says: “There is no salvation in anyone else [but Jesus Christ], for there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved.”

Every single one of us is like Eve in that story (whether we realize it or not; whether we want to admit it or not). That is to say, every single one of us has an apple of our own. And if we say we don’t, we’ve probably got a very big one!

That apple is a symbol of our pride, our anger, our gluttony, our lust, our sloth, our greed, and our envy. It’s a symbol of all those sins that we think will make us happy in this life, but never do. It’s a symbol of all those earthly realities that can keep us from getting into heaven, which is our true home.

There’s a beautiful line in that story, which says that after Eve gave her apple to the baby Jesus, she rose, “relieved as if from a great weight that had dragged her to the ground.” Then it describes her as she walked out the door. It says, “Her shoulders were no longer bowed down, her head almost touched the low roof, her face seemed miraculously renewed, as if she was finding once more the vigor of her youth.”

Like Eve in that story, each of us must freely choose to give our apple to Jesus Christ (in other words, we must freely choose to repent of our sins!). Jesus will not force us; he will not grab our apple out of our hands. He wants to lift the burden of guilt off our backs—like he lifted the burden of guilt off Eve’s back—but that will only happen if we follow the example that Eve gives us here. Like her, we have to bow to the baby in the manger with humility and contrition of heart, and willingly place our “apple of sin” in his hands! And we have to do that often, simply because we sin often! I don’t know about you, but I like to go to Confession at least once every two weeks. I guess that’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to this story: because I can identify with Eve when she walks out the door at the end feeling so much better—better about herself, better about the future, better about her prospects for eternity.

That’s how I feel after I go to Confession. That’s how every Catholic should feel.

Let me conclude my homily today by saying first of all that I’m not na├»ve. I realize that some people in this church right now probably like their apples—a lot—even though those apples ultimately make them miserable. (All of us can have moments when we foolishly cling to our sins.) If that’s where you’re at right now—if you’re really not interested in letting your apple go and in letting Jesus Christ more fully into your life, then feel free to disregard what I’m about to say.

For the rest of you, I have a suggestion—a very simple suggestion. I invite you to this when you get home—or at least within the next few days. Take an apple—a nice red one (or a green one; it really doesn’t matter)—and put it next to the baby Jesus in the manger scene you have in your house (hopefully you have a manger scene somewhere on display—every Christian family should!). And let each member of your family do the same thing. (If you’re part of a large family you might want to put all the apples in a bowl). You might even want to write your names on your apples—although that’s not absolutely necessary.

But please—don’t just put your apple down quickly and then walk away! Place it near the baby Jesus with reverence—like Eve in that story—and then pause to say a silent prayer like she did (just a prayer between you and Jesus; no one else needs to hear it). This is a time for you to thank him for coming to this earth to save you from your sins; it’s a time to invite him more fully into your life; it’s a time to ask his forgiveness; and it’s a time to promise him that you’re going to go to confession in the near future, to experience his mercy in that great sacrament—especially if you haven’t been in awhile.

Then let all the apples stay there! Keep them by the manger throughout this Christmas season. Leaving them there will help you to keep your focus on the true meaning of the Lord’s birth, and it will also give you a great opportunity to evangelize others. You see, I’m sure a number of people will come into your home in the next week or so, take a look at your manger display, and then say to you, “If you don’t mind me asking, what is that apple—what are all those apples—doing next to the baby Jesus in the manger?”

Then you can tell them: You can tell them why Jesus Christ came to earth 2,000 years ago; you can tell them what Christmas—and Easter—are really all about; and best of all, you can tell them the really great news of how they can get rid of their apples!