Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Story of Christmas

(The Solemnity of Christmas-Year B;This homily was given 25 December, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Stories. We all love stories. Stories are what fill the movie theatres year after year. They’re the reason why mega-bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble stay in business. Everyone loves a good story.

In many ways our lives are very much like a story. What kind of story is your life right now? Is it a success story, where things have really come together in your business or in your personal life? If so, we thank God this morning for that story. Maybe it’s a horror story, with terrible images of Bald Hill Road, long lines, piles of wrapping paper and a really huge Visa bill!

For some this year, their story is a tragedy; we can all think of people we know whose lives, whose story, has taken a turn for the worse. This morning we pray for them, that their story will change. For most of us, though, maybe our story is simply one that is incomplete; we are waiting for what will happen next. Our story is still unfinished.

This morning we celebrate the greatest story ever told: The story of Christ. It is the remarkable story about the God who became man in order to bring us home to Heaven. For 2,000 years that story has been told over and over, in hundreds of different ways.

Just a moment ago we heard that story in narrative form, as we listened to it proclaimed in the Gospel. On Christmas Day, in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi told that story in the small Italian town of Greccio, by constructing the world’s first living manger scene. Some 800 years later we still tell the story in that same way, with crèche scenes like the one in our sanctuary this morning.

But have you ever heard the story of Christ told as a romance, as a love story? I know it sounds a little strange; we’re not talking about putting Jesus on the cover of a Harlequin Romance novel! It’s actually something that is very Biblical. All throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as the faithful husband who makes a spousal covenant with His people; in the Vigil Mass for Christmas, the prophet Isaiah boldly declares:

As a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you.
—Isaiah 62:5

The great Spanish mystic and doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, also writes about the birth of Christ as a love story between God and His people. It is one of his greatest poems, and he calls it—of all things—the Romances.

Basically it is a dialogue of love between God the Father and God the Son. We are allowed to kind of "eavesdrop" on that conversation in heaven. In that Poem the Father says:

“My Son, I wish to give you
a Bride who will love you.
Because of you she will deserve
to share our company,
and eat at our table,
the same bread I eat,
that she may know the good
I have in such a son;
and rejoice with me
in your grace and fullness.”

The Bride, of course, is us. We are the Father’s gift to His Son. But that gift is one that is incomplete because of the nature of God and because of our own human nature. God is pure spirit, existing from all eternity long before the material world is ever created. He is different from us.

We are made of body and soul, flesh and blood. We could never be fully united to the Son. It is an incomplete gift. The Father in the Romances recognizes this. He says:

“Now, you see Son, that your bride
was made in your image,
and so far as she is like you
she will suit you well;
yet she is different in her flesh,
which your simple being does not have.”

And so the Father proposes to the Son that He will make Him like His bride. He will give Him a body, make Him flesh and blood like the Bride He has already been given. The Son—of course—is delighted, as He is delighted in everything that the Father does. He cries out to the Father:

“My will is yours,
and my glory is
that your will be mine . . .
I will go and seek my bride
and take upon myself
her weariness and labors
in which she suffers so;
and that she may have life,
I will die for her,
and lifting her up out of that deep,
I will restore her to you.”

It’s a beautiful poem about why God became man, and what God has in mind for all of us when Christ is born in Bethlehem. We are the reason Christ becomes man. We are the Bride He comes to seek out, and even to die for. He comes to take upon Himself our weariness and our labors.

God becomes man for us. Christmas is the place where God’s story meets our story, where the Son leaves His throne in Heaven and breaks into our world in a very real and glorious way. That miracle that occured in Bethlehem is one that can happen at any time, in any place, even and especially in the midst of our own story.

Each year the national weekly publication Our Sunday Visitor invites its readers to share with them their most personal and meaningful Christmas stories. Several years ago a woman named Eileen O’Grady wrote about her experience one Christmas Eve night in 1962.

She was a young woman who found herself homeless, pregnant and very much alone. She wandered through the city, cold and in tears, until she finally came to rest at a Nativity scene in front of a local church. Eileen writes about how she felt as she sat there in the snow, looking at the statue of Mary. She says:

I knew Mary and I were very different, but I could see the similarities, too. I sat there throughout the night, at times feeling sorry for myself , at other times feeling sorry for Mary, who was also young, pregnant, and homeless. As daybreak came, a light snow began to fall, and I felt a sense of warmth, a peace, and a confidence that everything would be OK.
—Our Sunday Visitor’s Christmas Memories, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.

And little by little things were OK for Eileen O’Grady. She found a small apartment in that town and eventually gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She finished high school and provided a nice home for herself and her daughter.

And finally, some 20 years after sitting in front of that Nativity scene, both she and her daughter had a deep conversion of faith and became active members of their Church. Eileen looks back at that Christmas Eve night in 1962 as the moment that made all the difference in her life.

“This is my story,” she says, “and this was my best Christmas.”

Wherever we find ourselves this Christmas, we are reminded that our stories really are incomplete unless they become part of God’s story. We are made for God, and only God can give our lives true meaning and true purpose.

This morning we can ask ourselves: Where is the Bridegroom seeking us out this Christmas Day? Where will that miracle Baby of Bethlehem find His place in our stories this Christmas?