Breaking the Stable Tradition
December 25, 2007
The Vatican is not usually recognized as for its innovation. Usually when the Holy Father speaks, it is to reaffirm some belief or practice of the past rather than proposing some change in the future. But this Christmas is different. This Christmas for the first time in its history the Vatican has replaced its traditional manger scene in St. Peter’s square with a radically new one. And it has turned a lot of heads and raised a lot of questions by doing so.
The traditional manger scene is the one we have here in the church and the one many of you have in your own homes. It is based upon the Gospel of Luke, the gospel we just heard proclaimed. In it Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the world wide census, Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn, and the angels appear to shepherds in the fields announcing the savior’s birth. We all know that story. But some of us might not know that there is an alternate version of Jesus’ birth which comes from the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel Joseph and Mary do not travel to Bethlehem. Joseph receives a message from an angel to take Mary as his wife. When he does so, Jesus is born in Joseph’s home. Now it is this version, Matthew’s version, that the Vatican has chosen this year to be its Christmas scene.
So beginning tonight, if you were to travel to Rome and go to St. Peter’s square, you would not see a stable with a donkey and an ox, you would not see shepherds and sheep, you would not see a baby in a manger. What you would see is a baby with his mother in Joseph’s home. You would see Joseph’s carpentry shop where he works. Adjacent to that shop is a small outdoor patio, and next door a pub in which people are drinking and celebrating around a fireplace. Now you might find an angel or two, but no shepherds, no manger.
When the Vatican was questioned about the reason for this change, it gave a very incomplete explanation. The head of Vatican City State who is in charge of the display simply said, “It’s time for a change.” I think you would agree with me this is a totally inadequate explanation to justify a change which has altered centuries of tradition. That is why it is a good thing you came to celebrate Christmas here at St. Noel. Because when the Vatican holds back in silence, I am unafraid to rush ahead with an explanation. In fact, I think the explanation is rather obvious. Why move from Luke’s gospel to Matthews’s gospel? Why move from a stable to a carpentry shop?
Because the whole meaning of the feast that we celebrate tonight is the Jesus must move from the manger to our home. As exotic and romantic as it may be to picture Jesus surrounded by shepherds and sheep, it is more important to find Jesus where we live, where we work, and yes at times where we relax with friends and a few drinks. The gospel of Matthew challenges us not to keep Jesus in a manger but to bring him into our lives, to bring him home.
Now what does it mean to bring Jesus home? It means to make his priorities our priorities. What are Jesus’ priorities? Let me give you the top three.
Jesus puts people first. We who bring Jesus home are asked to do the same. We must realize that there is nothing more important than the people in our lives. They are more important than the money we make, than the work we do, than the comforts we enjoy. There is no more important thing to do than to spend our time with people, to share ourselves and our wisdom with them, to let them know that we love them and are thankful for them. Jesus makes people a priority. In his great commandment he says that we are called to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we bring Jesus home, we must put people first.
We must also turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies. Each one of us carries some resentment, some anger towards someone who has hurt our or disappointed us. We have all the reasons why they were at fault and why it is their responsibility to come and ask us for forgiveness. Jesus says we must take the first step to forgive them. We must make the first step toward reconciliation. We do not do this because the person who hurt us deserves it. We do it because it is simply God’s way. When Jesus teaches us to pray he says, “forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” If we bring Jesus home, we must forgive our enemies.
We must also care for the weakest among us. Jesus calls us to care for the unborn, for the poor, for the sick, for the imprisoned. It is not enough for us to say, ‘Look I’m taking care of my life and my family, let those people care for themselves.” Jesus measures us against the way we care for the most vulnerable and the most weak among us. He says, “Whatever you do for the least of those among you, you do for me.”
Putting people first, forgiving our enemies, caring for the weakest among us, those are Jesus’ priorities. If we are to bring him home, they must be our priorities as well. And that is not easy. I suppose it is for this reason that many people at this time of year choose to keep Jesus in the manger. They string up the Christmas lights, turn on the Christmas music, wrap the Christmas presents, and look fondly upon the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. The Gospel of Matthew calls us in a different direction. It invites us to take Jesus home. It calls us not to leave him in the little town of Bethlehem, but to bring him to our town, to bring him into our lives. It calls us not to keep him away in a manger, but to let him rule our hearts and to fill our hearts with love, forgiveness, and service.
So let us do that. Let us open our hearts and let him in. For only those who do so will know the true joy of this season and the wonder of Christ’s birth.
A Non-Christmas Carol
December 25, 2010
One of the great things about the Christmas season is that there are so many songs, traditions, and customs which help us celebrate the meaning of this feast. Today I would like to use one of them in my homily to enlarge the meaning of Christ’s birth. It is a Christmas carol: “Good King Wenceslas.” You can find it in your worship aid right after the final hymn of today’s liturgy. It is in a box at the bottom of the page.
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night though the frost was cruel, when a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me. If thou know’st it, telling, yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me flesh and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together, through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod where the snow lay dinted. Heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
I think we all know the first line of the song: “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” You might know the melody, but in case you do not remember it, Aga, will play it for us. (Aga plays) The carol continues, “when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel. When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.”
There are two things that we should notice about this Christmas carol. The first is that it really is not a Christmas carol. Jesus’ birth is not described. There is no manger, no shepherds, no wise men, and no angels. All we have is good King Wenceslas, a Czech king of the 10th century, looking out his palace window one frosty night and noting a poor man gathering winter fuel. But it is this unusual characteristic of the carol which makes it most useable for us. This carol does not describe Jesus’ birth, but instead describes how we should live in light of Jesus’ birth.
This is exactly what good King Wenceslas shows us how to do. In the second verse, he calls his page and says “who is that poor man and where does he live?” The page answers “by St. Agnes’ fountain.” The story continues. The king is a Christian, and here is a poor man. He tells his page that they will go out and invite the poor man to dine with them for a great feast. But first the man must be found. So the two of them go out—the king and page together “through the bitter weather.” Now we arrive at the second notable trait of this carol: there is a miracle in it. The miracle has to do with the extremely cold weather. In the fourth verse, walking outside into the cold, the page begins to speak. “Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.” The page is frozen. He cannot go on. The king responds: “Mark my footsteps, my good page. Tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly. In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed.” A miracle—better than electric socks! The page warms himself by the heat that comes from the footprints of good King Wenceslas. Then of course, the carol ends “therefore, Christian men [women too, but they ruin the rhyme], be sure wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
So that’s the story of good King Wenceslas. I would suggest to you that there are three things that this carol tells us about celebrating Christmas–what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. What to do is obvious. We are called to serve the poor. We are called by good King Wenceslas to look out our window and recognize who needs our care. Who is struggling because of grief, sickness, loss, or poverty? How can we extend ourselves to them? At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ who brings our salvation. But the truth is that Christ often works through us to bring salvation to others. So what we are called to do at Christmas is to be Christ to others—to reach out to those in need.
When do we do this? Well good King Wenceslas look out on the Feast of Stephen. The Feast of Stephen is December 26, the day after Christmas. This carol is quite specific to state that living the Christian life is not limited to Christmas day. It begins the day after Christmas and continues every day after that. We are called to be Christ to others every day of our lives.
How do we follow the gospel? How do we do what Christ asks of us? By walking in the footsteps of a saint. Here I do not mean good King Wenceslas. All of us have saints in our own lives—holy people who reflect God’s love to us. They might be a parent, an aunt, a teacher, a friend, or a coworker in whom we can see qualities that should be a part of our lives—qualities of generosity, sacrifice, patience, service, or joy. To celebrate Christmas well, we are asked to identify a saint in our lives and then follow in his or her footsteps. If we do so, we will not be disappointed. For by following in the steps of a holy person, we will have direction and courage. The winter chill of discouragement and fear will not affect us because “heat is in the very soil which our saint has printed.”
So, in the next 24 hours as you gather with family and friends, you might hear the strains of good King Wenceslas on your television, radio, or IPod. If you do, I encourage you to remember what this carol tells us about celebrating Christ’s birth. Try to locate a saint in your life and follow in his or her footsteps. Begin that journey the day after Christmas and continue it every day after that. And remember that following the gospel of Christ, serving one another, is no hardship or burden because “ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”