When We Were Gone Astray

(Homily for Christmas)

Bottom line: God became man to save us from our sins.

Merry Christmas! My name is Fr. Phillip Bloom. This is my first Christmas as your pastor here in Monroe. And I have to say, it is good to be in a town where most people are not afraid to say, Merry Christmas!

Now, that does not mean it is any easier to give a Christmas homily. I feel like the college student, unprepared for his exam. He didn't know the answers and since it was right before the winter break, he wrote: "Only God knows the answer to these questions. Merry Christmas." The professor wrote back, "God gets a 100. You get a zero. Happy New Year."

Well, I hope I get a better mark on this homily, but whatever you give me, please give God a hundred. He gave all. He didn't give us spare change; he gave everything - his very being. That is what Christmas is about.

The message of Christmas is this: God has become man to save us from our sins. A popular Christmas song expresses it this way:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy!

God became man to save us from our sins. The name, "Jesus," means God saves us from our sins. That simple phrase contains two difficult words. The first is "sin." Many people have difficulty understanding what sin is. I am not going to give a full exposition tonight. I will assume that you have a sense that something is wrong in our world - and in your own heart. You have not only been sinned against; you have sinned. When the song said, "when were gone astray," you felt a certain emotion: That you need a Savior, that you need Christmas. Christmas means that, to save us from our sins, God became man.

Sin, then, is the first difficult word in the phrase about God becoming man to save us. There is a second, even more difficult word: God! By definition, God exceeds our human understanding.

A book that came out a few years ago underscores the distance between us and God. Its title is "There is a God." The subtitle says, "How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind." A man named Anthony Flew wrote the book. Flew was considered the world's most notorious atheist because of something he did almost sixty years ago. In 1950 he wrote an essay called, "Theology and Falsification." Those who deny God's existence keep referring back to it. It came as quite a shock to atheists when Anthony Flew changed his mind. In his book "There is a God" he tells how developments in physics and biology led him to reconsider his atheism.

I mention Anthony Flew on Christmas for a specific reason. His use of human reason brought him to a belief in God's existence - but no further. He knows that God exists, but is unsure if God cares about us or even takes any interest in us.

The case of Anthony Flew - certainly one of the greatest thinkers of our time - shows the limits of human reason: It is one thing to know that God exists (most human beings, even today, know that) but it is something else to know who - or what - he is.

So there is a gap, a distance between us and God, both because of our sins and because of very nature of God. He is infinitely beyond our understanding. Christmas is about God bridging this gap between us and him. To give some idea how this happened, allow me a comparison:

Imagine a boy doing his homework with a dog sitting at his feet. The dog seems perfectly content even though he has no idea what the boy is up to. The boy with his books and pencils and writing paper is in different world from the dog, but still the two have a deep affection for each other.

This happy state of affairs between humans and dogs did not always exist. The dog's ancestors used to fear humans and hide from them. But at some point, a very brave - and brilliant - person approached the wolves. Maybe he just saw an abandoned wolf pup and took him in. Whatever he did, he somehow bridged the enormous distance between the two species - and we began to live together.

Now, the distance between us and God is infinitely greater than the difference between a human being and wolf. We know less about God's purposes - why he created the vast universe - than a wolf or a dog knows about a boy. But like a trusting mascot, we no longer need to live in fear. God has reached down to us. He has become one of us. He has taken our sinful condition on himself. It happened that first Christmas.

In October of this year, 2009, Pope Benedict canonized a saint who powerfully illustrates the meaning of Christmas. The saint's name is Joseph Damien de Veuster, better known as St. Damien of Molokai. As a young priest Fr. Damien left the relative comfort of Belgium to minister to lepers. The setting was beautiful - the Hawaiian island of Molokai - but the disease hideous: leprosy attacks the extemities, fingers and toes, then ears, eyes and eventually consumes the whole body.

Faced with the task of serving 700 lepers, Fr. Damien first set up a medical clinic. He quickly realized they were not only suffering physically, but spiritually and morally. Many, in a kind of despair, had given themselves over to alcohol and disordered sexuality. The priest tried to reach them, but they knew he was different from them. He did not share their condition.

Fr. Damien always addressed his flock lovingly as "my dear brethren," but one day in 1885 that changed. At the age of 45, in a calm clear voice, instead of "my dear brethren," he began with, "My fellow lepers, I am one of you now." His toes had a numbness that would not go away and they began to slowly decay and twist. The disease would soon spread to his hands, face and entire body. But he continued to serve his fellow lepers, four more years, until his death on April 15, 1889.

St. Damien of Molokai illustrates what God has done for us: He has assumed our condition to save us from despair. That is the reason St. Damien inspires not only Christians, but even non-believers. A few years back, they asked the state of Hawaii to choose someone for the Capitol Rotunda. Who did they select? Well, if you visit the Rotunda in Washington, D.C., you will see Hawaii has the only statue of a canonized saint: Fr. Damien of Molokai.*

In St. Damien of Molokai we have a tiny glimpe of what God has done for us. In St. Damien's case, it happened not deliberately, but in the course of his ministry. But God deliberately and freely assumed our diseased condition. God has bridged the infinite gap between us and Him. Out of compassion for our desperate situation, he choose to become one of us. God became man to save us from our sins. That is the meaning of Christmas. I would like to conclude with - once more - the joyful words of that Christmas carol:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy!


*California may have the second. Its representative in the Rotunda, Junipero Serra, was beatified in 1988 by Pope John Paul II - but awaits canonization.

General Intercessions for Christmas (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From the archives:

Christmas 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

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(updated December 16, 2009)

Pictures from Peru

(Diego - boy with eye disease. More information in bulletin.)

Report on Diego's operations - with pictures (pdf file)

Fr. Frank Pavone: Reid Health Care Bill Is A Gift Americans Won’t Accept

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

Parish Picture Album

Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish

Washington state priest brings natural family planning to Peru's highlands Catholic News Agency article about the Mary Bloom Center by Benjamin Mann

Educan en regulación natural de la natalidad en sur andino del Perú Latin American Press (aciprensa) article on the Mary Bloom Center with video