Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas and The Happy Prince

(Solemnity of the Nativity; This homily was given on Christmas Morning, 2006 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See John 1:1-18)

There is a beautiful short story written by Oscar Wilde called “The Happy Prince.” The Happy Prince is a statue that stands on top of a tall column overlooking the city. He is magnificent, covered in gold leaf, with sapphires for his eyes, and there is a large red ruby that is set in the hilt of his sword. All the people of that city have great admiration for the Happy Prince.

As the story begins, a small swallow is flying through the city on his way to meet his friends in Egypt for the winter. He decides to rest for the night and so he sets himself at the feet of the Happy Prince. Suddenly a drop of water falls upon him, and he looks up, only to discover that the Happy Prince is crying.

“Why are you weeping?” he asks him.

The Happy Prince goes on to explain that while he was alive he used to live in the Palace and he never saw what life was like in the city. But now that he is high above the city, he can look out and see all of the misery and suffering that are there, and he cannot help but weep.

Far away he can see a woman who is poor and in need, unable to help her family; but he is fastened to the column and can do nothing to give her any assistance whatsoever. He asks the swallow to bring her the ruby from the hilt of his sword. Although the swallow complains that he has to be going, and cannot be delayed by such errands, the Happy Prince prevails over him and the swallow brings the ruby to her.

When he returns the Happy Prince tells him of another person in that city, a young man trying to write a play. He is poor and hungry, and there is no heat in the place where he lives.

“My eyes are all that I have left,” he tells the swallow. “Pluck out one of them and take it to him.” The swallow reluctantly does so, and finally the Happy Prince sends him on another errand, this time with the other sapphire.

When he returns, the Prince thanks him and tells him that he may go now and join his friends in Egypt. But the swallow says to him: “You are blind now, so I will stay with you always.”

The Happy Prince then tells him to fly throughout entire city, and to return and describe what he sees. The swallow witnesses all the suffering and pain that the Happy Prince had seen, and when he returns and tells the Prince about it, he is sent out again and again, to bring the people all the gold leaves that had covered him so decoratively.

By the end of that story the Happy Prince is looking quite shabby, and the little swallow has lost the opportunity to join his friends, but the entire city has been changed and transformed. Not everyone recognizes it, and not everyone appreciates it, but things are different. They will never be the same again.

In many ways that story of the Happy Prince is what we celebrate this morning on the Solemnity of the Nativity. Jesus Christ is the Happy Prince who is not content to remain in His palace in heaven. God looks out and sees all of the suffering, sorrow and pain in the world, and he sends Christ to come and take on our human nature, to take on our sufferings and our sorrows.

Jesus Christ is the Happy Prince who is stripped not of gold leaves, sapphires and rubies, but is stripped of glory and stripped of heaven in order to come among us here on earth. In the end, He is stripped of His garments and nailed to a cross, in order to bring us forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. That is the miracle we celebrate this morning on the feast of Christmas.

And that is the miracle that God wants to continue right here among us even now. Like that swallow in the story about the Happy Prince, we are called to be the eyes of Christ looking out upon the suffering and pain of this world. It can be so discouraging sometimes to see all of the darkness in the world, and feel like things are never going to change. But St. John reminds us in the gospel this morning that Jesus Christ is “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

We are called to bring that light to a world that desperately needs to hear the gospel message. Like the swallow, we are called to bring the treasures of our faith and the vision of hope and love to the world around us.

What are the very practical ways that God is calling us to do that this Christmas? As we look out “over the city,” what do we see? Where are the places that sorrow and pain have entered the relationships, families and people around us? How is God calling us to carry His message of mercy and forgiveness to a world that so often sits in darkness? Might we leave this Church this morning, carrying the treasures of God to those who long for Him.