Christmas has become known as a time of gift giving. But I would like to begin tonite with something much more important, that is receiving a gift. In some way it is even more vital to be able to receive a gift well that to give one. I think of my niece in this regard. She is a young woman now with children of her own, but I always remember when was a little child, three or four years old. She had a lovely way of receiving gifts. She would pick up the package and inspect it before she began unwrapping. When she finally opened it, she had such a look of delight on her face. One of my brothers had bought her a doll about three inches high. She held it in her hands and smiled, then went over and gave my brother a kiss and a hug. And later on she knew how to continue to express her gratitude, placing the doll in a special place, telling us what the doll's name was and so on.
My niece knew how to receive a gift. That is something each of us needs to renew, to re-learn, especially at Christmas time, not just because there might be some package under the tree. There is a much greater present awaiting each one of us. We re-enacted it when we blessed the Nativity scene. I am talking about the greatest gift imaginable--the Infant Jesus and the salvation he has won for us.
In the Hispanic and some other cultures, there is special way of showing appreciation for the gift of the Christ Child. At the conclusion of the Mass the priest will pick up the statue of the Baby Jesus from the manger and the congregation will come up to caress or to kiss. It is like what we do on Good Friday for the adoration of the cross. This kind of veneration is based on a sense which is particularly strong among the Greek Orthodox, that an image is an icon which in some way has the presence of the person represented, in this case the Child Jesus. An orthodox artist will spend many days fasting and praying before he begins painting an icon because he knows it is something sacred. Statues and images which have been blessed have a power we can unlock by faith.
I invite you after our Mass tonite to draw near to the Manger scene, to spend some time thanking God for the great gift of his Son. And if you have a manger scene your home, I encourage to pick up the Child Jesus. Don't let sophistication get in the way of gratitude. You might even want to reverently pass the Child Jesus to each member of your family to venerate. This can be especially powerful if you have young children in your family circle.
This great devotion to the Infant Jesus we owe largely to St. Francis of Assisi. Before him the emphasis was on Jesus' glory as Risen Lord. Even on the cross he was shown wearing his priestly vestments. This spirituality is true and good, but Francis of Assisi wanted to focus more on Jesus' humility--especially his two moments of greatest weakness: his crucifixion and his birth. In the year 1223, Francis was spending the winter in a mountain hermitage with some of the brothers. He decided to gather the townspeople at a cave and to use real animals--ox, donkey, cow, etc. as well as real shepherds to re-enact the the Nativity of Jesus. He wanted them to see the harsh conditions in which he was born and to be drawn to him.
At Christmas time we are invited to do something similar. In order to make some room for Jesus we need to remove some of the clutter in our lives. I'm speaking as much to myself as to any of you. Earlier this month, Archbishop Brunett visited Holy Family. I decided I had better straighten out my room a little bit. I was amazed at the things I found--things I had been looking for, but thought we lost. That's a good project before the New Year: to clean out some of the clutter to make a place for Jesus. I'm not talking just about material possessions.
If we are going to respond to Jesus, we have to make a space for him. Let me give an example. In our parish this past year, we have begun the practice of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The consecrated Communion Bread which is Jesus' real presence is exposed in a special container called a monstrance, all day Wednesday and all day Friday and on thru the nite until Saturday morning. So many people have been coming to spend an hour in adoration of Jesus and it has brought wonderful blessings to them and their families.
The Eucharistic Bread in the Mass is like Bethlehem. Just like Jesus came in the humble form of a little baby, he comes today in the humble form of bread--which becomes his Body and Blood, his Real Presence in the Eucharist or Mass. My invitation to you this Christmas is to make that space in your life for Jesus, to come to Mass every Sunday. The pope reminded us this year that attending Mass is a serious obligation, a duty for every Catholic. I cannot say that every Mass will be as exciting as Scharzenneger movie--but it has something far, far better, the greatest gift of all which is Jesus true presence.
When we attend Mass, we live the words of that beautiful hymn:
From the archives:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
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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