The Tiny Footsteps of Jesus

(Homily for Christmas 2008)

Bottom line: St. Katharine Drexel teaches two Christmas lessons: love for Jesus in his humility and solidarity with the poor.

Merry Christmas! Don't be afraid to say it. Merry Christmas!

To begin this Christmas homily, I would like to tell you about a girl who wanted a special gift - the best gift anyone could ask for. She was nine years old and she wrote a Christmas letter to her adopted mother. "I am trying to study hard," she wrote, "so that I may make my first Communion this year." At that time children had to be at least ten or eleven to make their First Communion.* The year was 1867. The city was Philadelphia. And the girl's name was Katharine Drexel.

Her dad was a multi-millionaire banker. Katharine could have had any gift money can buy, but she understood the best gift: Jesus. Once he came as a tiny baby. Now he comes in the humble form of bread. Katharine did receive Jesus in Communion. She attained her greatest Christmas wish. After that, she started spending time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

In her late teens, Katharine became a secular Franciscan, embracing voluntary poverty. When she was twenty-one, her adopted mother died and two years later her dad, leaving an inheritance estimated at twenty million dollars. That was 1881 - a dollar then was equivalent to about eighteen dollars today. Katharine, however, continued to live her personal vow of poverty. With prudence and good Stewardship, she gave away the entire fortune. She had a special concern for Black and Native Americans, eventually founding a religious order dedicated to their spiritual and material needs.

I am telling you about Katharine Drexel for a reason: this past year many people are hurting because of the economic meltdown. In the midst of this crisis, Katharine Drexel teaches us two Christmas lessons: love for Jesus in his humility and solidarity with the poor.

Recently I saw a lovely example of that spirit of solidarity.** A man from a neighboring parish approached me. He heard that we give Christmas gifts to the needy. He then pulled out of his pocket a handful of grocery store gift cards - a total of ten cards. I thanked him and mentioned that we have many families who have lost their jobs in recent months. I asked him how he was doing. He told me his family's "college fund" had shrunk by about thirty thousand dollars. Next to him stood his grade-school-age son. He said they had talked about how other families were hurting - and they wanted to do something to help them.

One of the beautiful things about being a priest is that you see so many otherwise hidden acts of grace - like this family who had lost thousands, but wanted to help others worse off. These hidden acts of grace hold our society together. Let me use a comparison. You have probably heard about "dark matter." Although scientists cannot detect it directly, they speculate that dark matter (along with "dark energy") makes up about 96% of our universe. Without it the galaxies would simply fly apart. Well, God's grace - expressed in hidden acts of kindness - is like dark matter. It's what holds our civilization together.***

Pope Benedict spoke about the need for these small acts of grace and kindness. He expressed hope that the financial crisis cause people to look at Christmas differently this year. The crisis, he says, can help people "discover the warmth of simplicity, friendship and solidarity." As the pope stressed, these are the "characteristic values of Christmas."****

To conclude I would like to return to Katharine Drexel - not as a young girl, but as a mature, elderly woman. She is now called Mother Katharine because she is superior of the religious congregation she herself founded. She writes a Christmas letter to her spiritual daughters. In this beautiful letter she says: "Reflect on the infant Jesus, how tiny were His feet. We do not have to do anything too great in our lives; just follow in those tiny footsteps." Then, she continued, "Let God do the rest and He will transform those tiny footsteps of ours into giant strides which will help us to carry the Peace, the Hope, the Love, and the Joy which is Jesus Christ to all whom we meet."

After writing that letter, Mother Katharine suffered a severe heart attack that caused her to retire. She lived, however, another twenty years. Those years she spent mainly in prayer before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. She died on March 3, 1955 at the age of 96. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul declared her a saint. This Christmas as we face the great challenge of solidarity with the needy, let's ask her intercession. St. Katharine Drexel, pray for us. Like you, may we follow the tiny footsteps of the infant Jesus.


*In 1910, Pope Pius X allowed children to receive Communion when they reached "the age of discretion." Cardinal John Wright gave this explanation:

The Decree Quam Singulari, in treating the age at which children are to be initiated into their post-baptismal sacramental life, had to face (as had a decree on frequent Communion by the Sacred Congregation of the Council, five years before) certain doctrinal and ascetical errors that had become deeply rooted in Catholic life at the opening of the century, at least in some parts of the world. One of these was the pretense that a greater discretion is required for first Communion than for first Confession. This, like most of the other errors, was rooted in Jansenism: for example, one was the idea that to receive first Holy Communion requires a nearly complete knowledge of the Articles of Faith and, therefore, an extraordinary preparation. In effect, this means deferring first Communion for the riper age of 12, 14 or even older. Another error was the pretense that "the Holy Eucharist is a reward (for virtue), not a remedy for human frailty," a conceit which is contrary to the teaching of the Council of Trent that Holy Communion is "an antidote by which we are freed from our daily faults and preserved from mortal sins.

**A true story. If you wish to use it for your Christmas homily, say "I recently read about a man who had that spirit of solidarity. He approached a priest whose parish gives Christmas gifts to the needy, etc."

***I am indebted to Mark Shea for the comparison of grace and dark matter. The comparison breaks down in as much as we have to freely respond to God's grace. When we don't, civilization begin to fall apart - as we see happening today. Assertion of "rights" cannot substitute for grace.

****Here is a longer quote from the Pope's audience:

Because of the environment that characterizes it, Christmas is a universal feast. Even those who do not profess to be believers, in fact, can perceive in this annual Christian celebration something extraordinary and transcendent, something intimate that speaks to the heart. It is the feast that sings of the gift of life. The birth of a child moves us and causes tenderness. Christmas is the encounter with a newborn who cries in a miserable cave. Contemplating him in the manger, how can we not think of so many children who even today see the light from within a great poverty in many regions of the world? How can we not think of the newborns who are not welcomed and are rejected, of those who do not survive because of a lack of care and attention? How can we not think, too, of the families who desire the joy of a child and do not see this hope fulfilled?

Under the influence of a hedonistic consumerism, unfortunately, Christmas runs the risk of losing its spiritual significance to be reduced to a mere commercial occasion to buy and exchange gifts. In truth, nevertheless, the difficulties and the uncertainties and the very economic crisis that in these months so many families are living, and which affects all of humanity, can be a stimulus to discover the warmth of simplicity, friendship and solidarity -- characteristic values of Christmas. Stripped of consumerist and materialist incrustations, Christmas can thus become an occasion to welcome, as a personal gift, the message of hope that emanates from the mystery of the birth of Christ.

All of this, nevertheless, is not enough to assimilate fully the value of the feast for which we are preparing...

General Intercessions for Christmas (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From the archives (Christmas Homilies):

2014: There is More
2013: Forgiving God
2012: Why Jesus Was Born
2011: The Gift of Freedom
2010: Let Him Come In
2009: When We Were Gone Astray
2008: The Tiny Footsteps of Jesus
2007: No More Fear and Hiding
2006: That Sacred Jest
2005: An Ivory Horn
2004: A Christmas Poem
2003: The Weakness of God
2002: The Word
2001: The Abundance of God
2000: I Am One of You Now
1999: Bigger on the Inside
1998: How to Receive a Gift
1997: Someone is Knocking at the Door
1996: The Gift We All Desire

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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