Dec 24, 2013

Celebrate Christmas by being close to Christ and to the poor



By Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell
Bishop of Springfield
(CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Editor's note: The following is the homily which will be delivered by Bishop McDonnell at St. Michael's Cathedral during the Christmas Eve Mass, which will air at 11 a.m. Christmas morning on WWLP-22NEWS.

To some of you, my homily today may seem familiar. While you haven’t heard it before, you may have read it as my column in the December issue of our diocesan magazine, The Catholic Mirror. I felt that it has a message that bears repeating, and so, with your indulgence, let me offer it in this way.

The first time I was ever on a farm, I was struck – overpowered even – by all the smells. There was the fresh sweet smell of new-mown hay; there was the pungent odor of the pigpen; there was the mixture of animal smells in the barn; some smells were pleasant, some decidedly not.

I am reminded of that farm visit every Christmas as I think of the stable where Jesus was born and the smell of oxen, donkeys, sheep and wet wool. The reality of the stable is brought home to me: it was a bare, smelly, dirty and unlikely place for the Son of God to born, a poor place. Yet, isn’t that just like God? To do the unexpected? The surprising?

The mystery of Christmas is that it happened at all. But, “God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son.” And that giving took place in conditions and in circumstances that would identify Jesus with the vast majority of human beings. For, back then, and unfortunately even now, most human beings are far more familiar with conditions in the stable than with conditions of stability.

The song of the angelic choir, the awe of the shepherds, the visit of the Magi, soon gave way to the blood lust of Herod, the flight in search of safety, the exile far from home. The newborn Savior did not find safety easy to come by. Like many today, he was a refugee.  The phrase Jesus used years later, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” was familiar to him early on.

A parallel will happen this Christmas Day. Today, as on every day of the year according to the World Health Organization, 370,000 children will be born. Of those children, one out of three will be born into circumstances where there is insufficient shelter; half will be born to households where the average income is under $2.50 a day (that’s less than $1,000 a year); another 30 percent will be born to families making less than $5,000 a year. Most will know what it means to go to bed hungry – day after day. Only 20 percent of the children born this Christmas Day will find themselves in households with adequate income. 

                                        (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Another difference is found in the life expectancy of this year’s Christmas babies; it ranges from 47 years average life expectancy for children born in Sierra Leone to 83 years for those in Switzerland. 

Why bring this up in a Christmas homily?

It comes from something Pope Francis said on his visit to Assisi last October. St. Francis is, of course, the originator of the Christmas Crib, the manger scene we take for granted each Christmas. In speaking of St. Francis, Pope Francis reminded us: “Jesus is God, but he was born naked, he was placed in a manger, and he died naked and crucified ... We are all called to be poor, to strip us of ourselves; and to do this we must learn how to be with the poor, to share with those who lack basic necessities, to touch the flesh of Christ! 

"The Christian is not one who speaks about the poor, no! He is one who encounters them, who looks them in the eye, who touches them ... I would like to pray that every Christian, the Church, every man and woman of goodwill, know how to strip themselves of what is not essential in order to go meet the poor and ask to be loved by them.”

(Iobserve file photo/Mary Jeanne Tash)

That’s something to reflect upon at any time of the year, but especially as we celebrate God’s love for all of us.

A blessed Christmas!