Monday, December 25, 2017

Will it be Christmas Day or ‘Commerce Day’?

(Christmas 2017: This homily was given on December 25, 2017 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 2017]

Was Mac Davis a prophet?

Mac Davis is an actor and a singer and a songwriter (many of us know that), but is he also a prophet?  Or, more precisely, was he a prophet back in 1978, on the day in December of that year when his Christmas special aired on network television?  Some of you might remember it. The program was called, “A Mac Davis Special: A Christmas Odyssey—2010”—and it was about the growing commercialization of Christmas.  The story was set in 2010 (which, in 1978 seemed like a long time in the future), and it concerned a married couple (played by Mac and actress Bernadette Peters) who were trying to deal with the fact that December 25 wasn't celebrated as Christmas anymore.  Christmas had been eliminated from the calendar, and it had been replaced with a winter celebration that they called “Commerce Day”—which was (not surprisingly) all about spending money, making money and accumulating lots and lots of stuff.

Consequently, December 25 was no longer about “giving”, it was about “getting”; it wasn’t about saving your soul, it was about saving a buck!

I remember seeing this program when it aired in 1978, and thinking to myself, “This show had a pretty good message.  I’ll have to be sure to catch it when it’s on again next year.”

But it wasn’t on the following year, or the year after that—or any year since!  And personally, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  I think it’s disappeared because, for a lot of people who watched it in ‘78, the message hit close to home—really close to home.  It was a comedy that made a very serious point about the dangers of materialism, and an equally serious point about the real meaning of Christmas.

I thought of this old Mac Davis Christmas special last week, when I heard the results of a recent poll taken by the Pew Research Center.  According to this poll, although 90% of Americans and 95% of Christians claim to celebrate Christmas, the role of religion in their celebrations is noticeably declining.  And that’s a bad trend—a very bad trend!  In 2013, for example, 51% of Americans said they observe Christmas as primarily a religious (rather than a cultural) holiday, but this year only 46% said it.  And the percentages are worse for millennials.  They’re much less likely than other adults to say that they celebrate Christmas in a religious way. 

And so it should come as no surprise that, according to this poll, fewer people nowadays believe in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story as it’s found in the Bible.  For example, in 2014 73% of those surveyed said they believed in the virgin birth of Jesus; this year only 66% said they did.  In 2014 81% said they believed that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger, but this year only 75% said they did.

Changing Christmas Day to Commerce Day seemed pretty far-fetched in 1978.  It no longer seems that way in 2017.  With the secularization of our culture that we’ve seen in recent years—and which is clearly evident in this poll—I can actually envision something like this happening in our country in the relatively near future.  That’s why I posed that question at the beginning of my homily: Was Mac Davis a prophet in his 1978 Christmas show?  Was he predicting something that will eventually take place?

I certainly hope not!

Here we see how important it is that we as Catholics keep our focus—our spiritual focus—during this holy season.  We have to remind ourselves constantly of the primary reason why Jesus Christ came into this world 2,000 years ago.  And no, it wasn’t to help us save money at Macy’s!  He came to save us from the eternal consequences of our sins!  As the angel said to Joseph, “You must name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

His name means “Savior”—and that’s what he was.

And still is!

The famous English writer G.K. Chesterton was once asked why he became a Catholic at the age of 48.  He responded by saying, “To get rid of my sins.”

That was a very good answer.

Perhaps the reason why many people today ignore the religious dimension—and the religious roots—of Christmas is that many people today either ignore their sins, deny their sins—or try to rationalize them away.

They don’t see the need to have a Christ-centered Christmas because they don’t see the need for Jesus Christ—period!

Even though they have that need.

And so do we.

Which is really what makes Christmas so special.  John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Insert your name in place of “the world” in that verse, modify it slightly, and it still will be true: “For God so loved Fr. Ray, that he sent his only Son, so that if Fr. Ray believes in him he should not perish but have eternal life.”

I don’t know about you, but I want eternal life with Jesus Christ a lot more than I want a big screen TV from Walmart!

Jesus came to make that life possible for all of us.  He said, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

But we need his forgiveness constantly in our lives in order to attain that abundant life, simply because we sin constantly.  That’s why we Catholics should thank God for the gift of confession.  This was the sacrament that enabled Chesterton “to get rid of” his sins!  Bishop Sheen used to say that when a priest raises his hand to absolve someone in confession the blood of Christ is dripping from his fingers (spiritually speaking, of course!).  One drop of that precious blood can heal any sin and every sin.  It’s a shame when people stay away from the sacrament because of pride or fear.  They miss out on the greatest gift God has given to us and to the world since the fall of Adam and Eve.

It’s always great to meet someone who does appreciate the blessing of a good confession—and then experiences it in a powerful way.  A while back a man came into the confessional, confessed some “heavy-duty” sins that had been weighing him down for a long time; and then, before I gave him absolution, he said, “You know, Father, this was really tough, but when I leave here I know I’m gonna be flying.”  (He meant that, too, in the spiritual sense!)

And he did.

The next day I happened to run into him in town, and I said, “Are you still flying?”

He smiled and said, “Yes, I am!”

He understood the gift.

I’ll close this Christmas Day with a little meditation that I think summarizes the message of this homily pretty well.  I’m sure some of you have heard it before.  It begins:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent a Savior.

My brothers and sisters, if enough people come to believe that in the near future, we won’t ever have to worry about Christmas Day becoming Commerce Day (or anything else, for that matter).  And, happily, Mac Davis will be forever known to the world as a great actor and singer and songwriter—but not as a great prophet.

Merry Christmas.