Christmas: It’s All About Presence, Not Presents
What would really hurt you if it was stolen? Your iPhone? Your savings account? Your X-Box? What would really excite you if it was suddenly and miraculously returned?
What if it was the Bible? What if it was not? And if not the Bible, why not?
In 2013, the History Channel premiered the show, Vikings. The series portrays the sagas of Ragnar Lothbrok, the Viking leader. The show also features Athelstan: an Anglo-Saxon monk originally serving at the monastery of Lindisfarne. Athelstan is captured by Ragnar on his first raid clutching the Bible. Ragnar couldn’t understand why this book was so important when all of the other monks were grabbing gold chalices and silver candlesticks and fine vestments.
In one of his podcasts, Bishop Robert Barron mentions that this echoes a book out of the Eastern Orthodox tradition entitled, The Way of the Pilgrim (or for a better translation closer to the original language, The Way of the “Wanderer”). A man has a religious awakening and then chooses to go throughout land explaining experience to others. But, in an ironic twist, his life becomes a strange, mystical, spiritual life, characterized by mysterious encounters in the midst of every day life. For example, he meets soldier-alcoholic who explains how he was miraculously cured over time through prayer. The pilgrim – a wanderer through a physical and spiritual landscape – ends up entering into an internal, quiet contemplation.
At some point, robbed of two possessions that meant most in his life, the Bible and the Philokalia (a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters of the Eastern Orthodox tradition). Eventually he gets them back and the book portrays a scene with the Pilgrim clutching them so hard, that the fingers on his hands become locked.
What feeds your soul? What takes you through a portal to another place?
When you can find that, which feeds mind and heart and soul and ultimately the body, a higher self is born. This can be a gateway into a deeper experience. Bishop Baron says that this is NOT persuading the spiritual “pasha” in the sky to do our bidding nor is it some type of escapism into entertainment, sports, addictions or pleasure. It is a process of bringing something inside of us that transforms us. But before you think that this can be done through golf, or Pilates or fame or fortune, your portal will be proven in a crucible of calamity (cross).
Monsignor Charles Pope, from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. writes that we tend to sentimentalize the Christmas story as we think of the baby Jesus in the manger. It is certainly not wrong to be sentimental, but we must also be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was and the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in making it come to pass. There was:
- A shameful pregnancy
- A badly timed census
- A journey to Bethlehem – walking 70 miles through mountainous terrain in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy.
- No room in the inn.
- A second killer journey – 470 miles – through the desert to Egypt because Herod sought to kill Jesus.
These are neither unique nor isolated events. Here at St. Monica recently:
- People have lost loved ones have passed away – and there is grief,
- Jobs have been lost – or people continue to be unemployed after months of searching,
- There is anxiety about family members who are struggling with addictions.
- There are family members in poor health or who are dying.
- There are several families who just lost their pets this very week.
This is where Jesus was found back then … in the midst of the crisis of the first Christmas. This precisely where Jesus is found today … in a real Christmas – not a “Hallmark” one. This precisely where Jesus is found now in the midst of your “real” Christmas. A Christmas of joy, yes, but also a Christmas of imperfections – even crises (Msgr. Charles Pope).
Jesus is not about “presents” – Jesus is all about presence.
There is no perfect Christmas, even though you may wish for the perfect one. But Christ wants to find you where you are, in real life, present in your imperfect Christmas. Like the shepherds and the Magi, He is there waiting to find you…
… in the real Christmas of your life.
Audio version of the homily is here:
This can lead you to becoming your own “missionary,” and becoming a missionary in spite of yourself.
Where there is the possibility of love, there has to be the reality of freedom.
Where there is the reality of freedom, there has to be the possibility of pain.
Where there is the reality of pain, there is the need for a Savior.
Where there is a Savior, there is the possibility of redemption,
Where there is redemption, there is the possibility of restoration for the purpose for which you and I were created”
Suffering must be a possibility in order for the highest possible good (love) to exist. Yet this doesn’t soothe the aching heart or the failing body. This is where philosophy must be accompanied by a knowledge of our purpose–why God chose to create you in the first place.
“. . . having answers is not essential to living. What is essential is the sense of God’s presence during dark seasons of questioning. . .”
We all have the need of a presence.
Active contemplation in the midst of the community
Today’s Gospel speaks to us of a crisis at Christmas.
We can at the Gospels in three stages: distress, direction, and decision.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph but was found with child.
Joseph was an observer of the law which could possibly condemn mary to stoning (the penalty for adultery) yet didn’t want to expose her to shame and death, so he decided to divorce her quietly.
After the dream, Joseph must have struggled about whether the dream was real – or not,
Whether to follow the advice of the angel – or not,
Whether to take the chance with Mary – or not,
Whether to raise a child not his own – or not.
Be not afraid. The principal exhortation of the angel was that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful because fear was certainly a huge factor. One can imagine that only some of the fears would have been allayed by the angel.
Regardless, Joseph has a decision to make.
When Joseph awoke, he decided – he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
This decision was based on the kind of trust he had in God. The emotions were still there, but he pushed them aside, he decided to act based on his faith and, through this, rebuked his fear.
Mary and Joseph’s difficulties were not yet over.
Why did Jesus have to come in human form? There were three reasons:
His Goodness. He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork. Even at the moment of the Original Sin, God first rebuked the devil and announced a solution that from woman would come forth a son destined to crush the power of the evil one. This “first good news” signals that God has not given up; He already has plans to save us.
His Justice: God, in making us free, “must” respect our free will. Even when they have dire consequences, God does not protect us from the dire consequences of our bad choices. We got into this mess through a man, a woman, and a tree. But God will use these very elements to free us. And thus God does not merely undo our choices or cancel their consequences; He builds on them. This is His justice at work.
His Wisdom: A mere man – a prophet or a holy man for example – could not atone for our sins. A mere man alone does not have the power to save. Our debt is simply too high (see Matt. 18:24ff). And God alone, would have nothing to do with our case. But as the God-man, Jesus has both the power to save us and the brotherhood act for us. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. God is He is not overcome by the conundrum of human impossibility and divine justice. In the Incarnation, both truths are fittingly regarded and yet overcome.
Gestures – physical moves – signal to our body that we’re in a different place, going through a portal to calm the “monkey mind”
Jesus prayer “Why pray constantly? Don’t you have a real life?”
Rope of 100 knots and fan at the end.