Homily Christmas 2010
In 1860, Cambridge, Massachusetts, captured the essence of American Christmas.
Under starry skies, rows of New England houses
push their way up through a thick white blanket.
Sounds of sleigh bells and laughter resound through the countryside
as the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow family, bundled in winter wool,
is carried along in a sleigh behind a team of sleek, strong horses.
Swaying branches release a cascading shower of snow.
As they race across the frozen fields,
the children hear the beautiful sounds of Christmas: the ringing of the bells –
single steeple bells, bundles of carillon bells,
playing the familiar carols of the season,
the music of hope and peace.
The following year, 1861,
America needs that music of hope and peace
to counter fife and drum of the civil war.
As well, that summer a fire in the Longfellow home
claimed the life of Henry’s beloved wife Fanny.
Fanny was buried on the 18th anniversary of their wedding,
while Henry, severely burned in the fire, is fighting for his life.
As the civil war rages outside, Henry battles within.
The next two Christmases come and go
and Henry writes how “inexpressibly sad” he is without his wife.
His sadness is doubled when his son Charles is seriously wounded in battle.
At Christmas in 1863, Henry describes how his life feels
as if an “earthquake” has struck.
“In despair I bowed my head.”
There is no peace,
for “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
In difficult times, Henry and we often face the same question:
Where is the music of hope and peace?
That same Christmas, Henry writes how sure is his wife’s presence,
as if he can feel her in the room.
Death is the beginning, not the end, he writes.
As the children are whisked along through forests and valleys
in the sleigh once again,
they hear the familiar sounds of Christmas morning: the bells!
Henry is renewed by the music of the bells, which remind him of the season of hope,
and the One whose birth brings peace to mankind.
From his window he looks out across the snow-covered fields,
picks up his pen and draws it across a fresh sheet of snow white paper,
and writes the carol we have all heard many times:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
Wrong shall fail and right prevail,
In peace on earth, goodwill to men.
In the bells the message is clear:
a child is born in a stable, a child whose coming brings peace and hope.
And so he writes:
Though in a manger thou draw breath
Thou art greater than life and death
Because of Christmas, Fanny lives on, Henry lives on, our nation lives on!
Because of Christmas, and the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ,
we may live on, through life’s earthquakes and tragedies, in peace forever!
Our smiling faces and beautiful holiday outfits reveal the joy of our hearts:
the joy brought to the world by the coming of the Lord.
As we gather in this church to celebrate the coming of God among men
we hear the familiar sounds of worship: the bells!
The cupola bells summoned us into prayer
as we streamed in from our various homes and walked across the parking lot.
Like the poor shepherds and the wise kings,
we the faithful come to adore the Savior.
Hark how the sweet silver bells all seem to say: throw cares away, Christmas is here!
Soon the consecration bells will call our attention to the Eucharist
and proclaim that Jesus is here, truly here,
and His loving and abiding presence brings us peace.
Hark how the sweet consecration bells
awaken us to the truth that Jesus lives among us.
Jesus was born in a crude manger, in a humble stable,
in a little town called Bethlehem.
Do we know what “Bethlehem” means?
In Hebrew it means “house of bread!”
How providential since “bread” is an essential image of Christ.
When we celebrate Mass, bread becomes the real Body of Jesus.
Summoned by the church bells, we are gathered together in this sacred place:
the tabernacle, where Jesus lives and waits for us to come to Him
the monstrance, where parishioners and friends have adored Jesus
here in perpetual adoration for 15 years
the altar, where Jesus enters our world in the mystery of the Eucharist
the church building, where Christ’s mystical body gathers in His presence.
This is the house of the Bread of Life!
In our homes, we each have a beautiful Christmas tree:
carefully illuminated and decorated amid family celebration and tradition.
On Christmas morning,
children throughout the world cannot contain their excitement
over the treasures left beneath their trees.
Some of you boys and girls may be waiting to see if Saint Nicholas
brings you the latest fashions, some new Lego toys
the last Harry Potter book or Twilight DVD,
Madden 11 or Call of Duty Black Ops for the X-Box 360.
Here in the House of the Bread of Life, beneath the Tree of Life, which is the Cross,
we receive and unwrap the greatest gift God has given to all the world:
the gift of His Son Jesus.
As we sing, the ribbon is untied on the lovely package which is the liturgy.
As the prayers of the Mass unfold, the paper is torn asunder and excitement builds
until we reach the consecration and embrace the gift:
we become one with Jesus in Holy Communion.
Like a wide-eyed child staring at his brand new model train for hours
as it circles the tree,
we fall to our knees in awe and wonder.
Look what God has done!
He sent His Son to come among us as a baby and to save us from sin!
He comes to us in the Eucharist in every Mass as food for our souls!
What a precious treasure: Jesus lives among us! He loves us without condition!
Christmas comes but once a year, but every time we come to Mass
we are with Jesus, we are in Bethlehem, we receive the greatest gift of all!
A little child who receives a special gift, carefully chosen and beautifully wrapped,
might turn away to play with the box and paper.
But we come here because we appreciate what God has given.
Our celebration of God’s gift only begins here in the Mass.
From this source and summit of the Church’s life,
we are sent forth to share the love of Jesus with all people.
When men and women experience death, sickness, loss, depression or loneliness,\
unemployment and poverty
their hearts cry out for love and comfort.
Jesus alone can bring that perfect love, that enduring peace,
for which every human heart longs.
For Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the music of the bells, the hope of Christmas,
the love of Jesus, born in a manger and triumphant over death,
brought him hope
after the death of his wife and the suffering of his family.
For us the love that Christmas brings, the love of Jesus,
is the source of our hope and our peace amid the trials and the stresses of life.
And so we pray.
We need to pray each and every day, to take time to be one with Jesus, speak to Him
to listen to His Word, and to feel the love of God embrace us.
And then we share.
We share the love of Jesus we experience here in church
and in our prayer and the blessings of our lives
with our families, friends, co-workers, and even strangers in need.
By taking time to pay attention to the physical and emotional needs
of those around us and to reach out a helping hand, an open heart,
we make Christmas come alive every day.
Today the bells remind us that God gives us an unsurpassable gift –
a gift which brings hope in trials and peace in uncertainty
a gift we cannot help but share
a gift, a person, Jesus who is our first and greatest love.