In 1981, I was in Germany on a 9-month internship. The program had a tight schedule and didn’t allow you to return to the United States for Christmas. This was going to be the first time I would be spending Christmas always from family. I was working in Wiesbaden in central Germany. So I decided to travel south, get a room in a bed and breakfast in the village of Garmisch and do some skiing in the German Alps.
The first few days were quite enjoyable. The scenery is magnificent. The skiing was tremendous. The food everywhere in Germany is wonderful. Garmisch was decorated for Christmas like a fairytale city. I even had a few presents that my parents had sent me that were waiting to be opened on Christmas Day.
The day before Christmas Eve was a bit rough. Even in the idyllic setting of the Germany Alps, anybody would be a little homesick. So I went out to the slopes and was waiting in one of the lift lines. In the line were three young college-age Americans (you can tell). They were trying to make sense of the lifeline instructions which were only in German. Not wanting to see my landsmen – and women in difficulty I want over introduced myself and offered to help translate. I ended up skiing the rest of the day with them. Later we went into the lodge and I met their parents. They were two military families. The one dad was a full-bird colonial the other a 2-star general. Like me, they were in the area enjoying the winter wonderland and celebrating the Christmas season.
In the midst of the conversation, the general asked me about my family. I explained about my dad the dentist, my brother in college and mom in real estate in our home in Pennsylvania. The general asked to meet them but I explained that they were still back in the states. He asked,
“So you’re here alone? All by your self?”
I said, “Afraid so.” “At Christmas?”
He inquired. “Afraid so” I replied.
He said, “No. You stay with us. Nobody should spend Christmas alone.”
And so I spent Christmas with those two military families. The dinner was terrific. I was able to speak English for a change. They even managed to get a present for me.
A father was describing his pending Christmas. He has several children and a few new grandchildren. They live all over the country. They were returning “home” to celebrate Christmas. He mentioned how important it was for him to have the family around during this time of the year. he said “I just don’t like it when my children aren’t around. I worry all the time about whether they will get into heaven. I can’t imagine me being there and them not there with me. In fact, Father if my children aren’t with me in heaven, I’m not sure I want to be there.”
I’m not sure if I want to be here if you’re not here. From the Christmas Scripture we read,
You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the LORD. You are a glorious crown in the hand of the LORD, a royal diadem held by your God. No more shall people call you “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.” For the LORD delights in you.
He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God,
Centuries ago, St. Ambrose captured the idea:
You are one of God’s people, of God’s family. You light up the grace of your body with the splendor of your soul. More than others you can be compared to the Church.
ˆYou are the person Christ has loved. You are the person he has chosen. He enters by the open door; he has promised to come in, and he cannot deceive. Embrace him.
But understand that he is not won by the lukewarm, nor held fast by the negligent. Follow carefully the path God tells you to take, for he is swift in his passing. Hold him fast, ask him not to go in haste, beg him not to leave you. Because the Word of God moves swiftly.
Every year, parishioners look at the crowds at Christmas. Every year, with out fail, they ask me, “Why don’t they come next week as well?” There was an article in America Magazine a few years ago entitled, “Why They Left: Exit interviews shed light on empty pews.” The interviews a few hundred from the Diocese of Trenton and asked why they left. There was no trend. There was no, single reason or group of issues why they were no longer around. The reasons were totally varied:
- Not accepting of divorced and remarried congregants.
- I’m looking for more spiritual guidance and a longer sermon.
- I’m looking for less church talk and shorter sermons.
- A more consultative and transparent approach towards church matters.
- Too much of a conservative slant in liberal-progressive political discussions.
- Homilies aren’t relevant and priest spend too much time haranguing people in the pews.
- No childcare and a children’s ministry provided.
- Priest/pastor isn’t an outwardly loving, kind, Christian Catholic.
- The parish isn’t “approachable or welcoming.”
It’s tough being a Catholic today. You want to stay? You want to become engaged? You want to become a disciple in the church today? I Promise you – and I guarantee you one thing. You’re getting nothing but the guy behind me. And he’s on a cross. Here’s the ironic thing, whether you choose church or not, you’re on the cross! How are you faring with your cross? How are you handling life right now? Why did you come this evening? Because this Mass, this Christmas Mass – offered in this building – offers something that draws you. St. Ambrose says that it is the holy Church that teaches you how to hold fast to a man named Jesus Christ… who came to us as an infant…. who holds fast to us, not by restraining chains or knotted ropes but by bonds of love, spiritual reins, longings of your soul. And from now until Christmas 2019, Christ will come – again and again – just to you – just to visit. (On Virginity by Saint Ambrose, bishop (Cap 12, 74-75))
The General and his family took me to Christmas Eve Mass that day in Garmisch. Turns out they were Catholic. That might have just been a coincidence. I suspect that I could have been a rabid God-hating atheist and they probably would have invited me in anyway.
But I’m not. So why would the Lord do that? Why would the Lord bring all of those events together just to make sure that someone was not alone on Christmas?
Because “You are a glorious crown in the hand of the LORD, a royal diadem held by your God. No more shall people call you “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.” For the LORD delights in you.
Audio version of the homily is here: