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Christmas: No Longer Afraid

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Pondering the Gospel narratives from the Annunciation to the Presentation, it is striking how all of the principals in the story were confused, troubled and even gripped by fear. All of them. And from Heaven came the constant, soothing admonishment:

“Do not be afraid.”

Beginning with the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the priest, Zechariah, in the Temple to announce that Zechariah’s barren wife, Elizabeth, would have a son (John the Baptist). Standing before the Altar of Incense, Gabriel appeared to this righteous priest to announce the favor of the Lord, but Zechariah was filled with fear.

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…”

When she received her visitation, Mary was troubled at the greeting from Gabriel, prompting him to tell her,

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God…”

Evidently, Joseph had a fairly typical reaction to the news that his betrothed was pregnant with a child not of his issue, and was contemplating putting her away quietly. In a dream came the gentle admonishment,

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

When Heaven opened onto earth in that great Theophany on the night of Jesus’ birth, with a multitude of angels singing God’s praise, the shepherds too were filled with fear, and the Angel of the Lord said to them,

Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people…”

Matthew tells us that when the wise men came to Herod looking to worship the new king of the Jews, “…he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Here there was no angel to admonish or console. Herod and all of Jerusalem (presumably the ruling class) were troubled, but not afraid. Herod and many of the ruling class were corrupt and did not fear God. If anything, as with all tyrants, there was the fear of retribution by the oppressed and the fear of losing status and privilege gained at the expense of the down-trodden. As Mary said to Elizabeth in her great Magnificat,

“His mercy is on those who fear Him, from generation to generation.”

All of those to whom the Angel of the Lord came were in God’s favor. Not so the wicked, such as Herod. As the Heavenly Choir sang that first Christmas,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.”

A far cry and a better translation from the old and inaccurately indiscriminate, “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

For the virtuous principals in the nativity story, they are sought out because of their holiness, because they worked at it. Daily virtue. Because of their response in faith, living their faith, keeping their faith, God seeks them out and asks of them a great responsibility; and because of their faith and fidelity they were afraid.

We’re really no different. We are filled with all sorts of fear. We fear failing at what God has tasked us with, of being inadequate. It is the most common fear among parents.

We fear the trials that come with holiness, knowing that holiness requires emptying ourselves completely. In a materialistic culture with forty flavors of narcissism and hedonism, working at such holiness is a full-time job.

We fear success, knowing that it becomes the new baseline against which future painful growth is measured.

We fear the uncertain future, which causes us to hang on more tightly to the present moment.

While we fear all of these things, and so much more, we need to bear in mind that we are no different in many ways from the principals in today’s story. The good and virtuous Elizabeth and Zechariah feared the judgment of men, the interpretation that her barren womb was a reproach from God. They were delivered from their great fear, from that terrible stigma in their day.

Simeon in the Temple feared death before beholding the Messiah.

Joseph feared the stigma of a wife with a child not of his issue.

Mary feared how things would happen since she knew not man.

Holy people fearing the appearance of unholiness, fearing offending God’s goodness, love, and majesty.

Then, as now, it wasn’t all up to them in some Pelagian sense. God was with them, powerfully and dramatically. For doubting the Angel, Zechariah was struck mute until John was born, and when his tongue was loosed, what issued forth was his powerful Canticle. Mary and Joseph were provided all that they would need to sustain them in Egypt. God used the Wise Men for that.

And then there was the leading of the Holy Spirit.

When all was said and done, there was Easter and the assurance that our most dread fear will be swallowed up in the same loving providence that swallowed all of Mary and Joseph’s cares and woes. Between Christmas and Easter, there was a public ministry where God the Son repeatedly admonished us to not be afraid, to trust the Father’s providence, to trust His plan for our lives.

Simple holiness is all He asks. Daily virtue.

Most of us do it already, but we look too high up and too far away to see it, missing the great goodness that is the daily fabric of our lives. Good people, such as the virtuous principals in today’s story, fear failing at their call to holiness and action.

The Herods among us fear the call to holiness itself. For them, there is no consoling, “Be not afraid.” They need to fear. They ought to fear.

For the rest of us who walk daily with God, we have no reason to fear the newest call.

He is at once with us on the road, and waiting at the end.

Merry Christmas.

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Christmas Eve, late at night, burning the Advent wreath down, listening to Christmas hymns, the children and Regina finishing the decorating, and contemplating the Nativity in a year that has challenged us all like few others. I’m not thinking of peaceful nativities and Hallmark images.

I’m thinking this Christmas Eve of how much the real nativity speaks to the weariness in so many hearts this year. Specifically, I’m thinking of my best friend who endured three heart surgeries and almost died as many times, of Father Luke McCann who was the most influential mentor in my life who died on Columbus Day, of Superstorm Sandy having laid waste my community, and the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary.

It’s been quite a year, yet the story we tell tonight reveals the main characters, not as humans without a care because of God’s design for their lives, but as characters who suffered greatly because of God’s design for their lives: a design that required the deepest faith to accept, and the most difficult burden to bear.

“Faith,” as Father Luke McCann would remind me, “isn’t for when we have all the answers, but for when the roof is caving in and we don’t know what’s coming next.”

Mary had to endure a lifetime of taunts, of deep suspicion and gossip over her fidelity to Joseph, and her divine son’s legitimacy. She had to walk Joseph through the doubt about her fidelity and sanity, and it would still require the assistance of angelic visions to convince Joseph to stay with her.

Then there was the unimaginable selfishness of a society that had become so calloused and coarsened to life that not one person would give up their bed for a young girl in labor.

Not one.

The indignity of a barn awaited the birth of the King of Kings. They wouldn’t be long in the barn because the government, in the person of the king, had decided to butcher every male under the age of two in an attempt to slaughter Mary and Joseph’s child. They would need to live on the road, on the run, as they fled into Egypt; far from either of their families, and with none of the help that a new and young mother needs from the older women of the family.

Homelessness, death, privation, targeting of babies for death…

Not much has changed in 2,000 years. But God came to earth and showed from the moment of His human conception that He would identify with the poor and the least among us. Having escaped murder several times, He would eventually suffer that indignity as well. The nativity narratives tell us not only of God’s great condescension in taking on our humanity, but in His great identification in all things with the suffering of the world. It is the coupling of the great condescension and the great identification with the poor and the least that point to the majesty of God, a majesty whose might is shown in His infinite mercy and forgiveness.

When people look to the tragedies of this year and ask, “Where was God?”, what is really being asked is why God could permit such evil. For me this evening, as I look at the nativity set, the answer is that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph suffered mightily as well. I often wonder what went through Mary and Joseph’s minds and hearts as they contemplated all of those children slaughtered in the effort to get their child. The joy of the birth swallowed up as their hearts must have broken beyond description.

God was right there, physically there, in the midst of it all. So it is that He remains right here with us in the midst of it all.

If it’s true that there was a murderous Herod with designs on the child’s life, then it is also true that there were Magi who returned by a different route, having left gifts to sustain the young family in Egyptian exile.

If it’s true that there was the indignity of a stable, it’s also true that there was the great Theophany, when Heaven opened onto earth and the Angels sang.

If it’s true that there was the parsimony of the residents in the inns, there was the adoration by the shepherds and the Magi.

If it’s true that Mary suffered ridicule and the opprobrium of the women of Israel, it is true that her fidelity to the Father and the Son was rewarded greatly in Heaven.

If it’s true that the slaughter of innocents heralded the first coming of our Lord in His humble origins, then it is true that this mass slaughter of innocents in the womb and the classrooms of America and the world will herald the Second Coming of Jesus in glory.

So, on this quiet night as I reflect on a year that has tried our souls, I contemplate the sufferings of Mary and Joseph, of the mothers and fathers, grandparents and families of Herod’s victims, but also on all of the goodness that God sent into their darkness. I also think of the immense outpouring of charity in the wake of that killer storm in October.

I praise God for our modern Magi; the thousands of volunteers who came from around the nation to help us rebuild, for the endless convoys of truckloads of food, clothing, and supplies. I praise God for the goodness that so much suffering elicited–mainly from church groups acting in the name of Jesus.

I praise God for the outpouring of love, and prayers, and toys for the children and residents of Sandy Hook and Newtown.

I praise God that evil never has the last word, and always evokes a far greater expression of goodness and virtue.

I praise God for all of the good people whom God has sent into my life, whose goodness has been the sign of His constant love and presence, especially for Regina and the children.

Most of all, I praise God for the witness of Mary and Joseph. In their darkest hours they never questioned God’s presence, or His love, or His goodness, or His fidelity. Their faith told them that there was a purpose beyond all human understanding and that He was with them always. They are our perfect role models in this difficult year.

Theirs is a nativity for our time.

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Merry Christmas!!

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To all here at Coming Home, a Blessed Christmas filled with peace and joy, and a very healthy and prosperous New Year!

“And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans–and all that lives and move upon them. He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused–and to save us from our foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.”

~Sigrid Undset

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9:30 P.M. on Christmas Eve, and all is quiet in the house as the children are getting ready for bed. It’s the best part of Christmas for me, the quiet part of the Eve. Time to sit, and pray, and meditate.

No room at the inn.

That’s been gnawing at me for months. A young girl in labor, and a distraught husband desperate to find a place for his young bride to give birth. A little privacy and perhaps the assistance of an older woman from the community for the young couple far from home and reporting in for the Imperial Census. But there was no room at the inn, any inn.

Let that sink in.

In all of Bethlehem there was no room at the inn.

Of course there were rooms. Plenty of rooms. They were all filled, but there was nobody willing to give up their room for a young girl in labor. Not one.

Not one.

That was the darkness into which the Light of the World came that night over 2,000 years ago. It wasn’t that there was no room at the inn. There was no room in people’s hearts. How cold and hard those hearts must have been, every one of them, that they would consign a young girl in labor to the stable with all of its foul odor and indignity. Jesus had His work cut out for Him.

They had forgotten the core of the Mosaic Law, which was Charity and Mercy. They had forgotten Isaiah 58:

1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.

4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

The Messiah, whose own mother was made to endure childbirth amidst the filth of livestock, would later return to Isaiah when He taught us the criteria by which He would judge us when He returns in glory. In Matthew 25 He tells us:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The boy born amidst filth and indignity that night so long ago would bring a light that burns so bright that it melts the hardest of hearts. That light is His word and the Church He founded to preach that word which lives in action. I’m so blessed and proud to have been born into that Church, and to have had a family that expected me to embrace that light.

They expected me to work with God’s plan for me to create an “inn” of my own, not just a room. Make your mark in service to the Church. Little did I know that my life’s work would begin, then come around again in middle age, with the latter day Madonnas of the Streets.

I began to see it when I started working with homeless teen mothers at Covenant House, Times Square, in 1983. It was there that I met Chris Bell, who would shortly leave and cofound with Father Benedict Groeschel his own group of maternity homes, Good Counsel Homes. Chris revolutionized the maternity home model by setting in place in-depth life skills training and education programs that enable women to be the providers for their families.

More than twenty-seven years later, Good Counsel is going strong and a new revolution in maternity homes is underway in Charlotte, North Carolina, at Room at the Inn.

It has been a blessing this year to become friends with RATI’s Director, Jeannie Wray. Catholic, and a cell biologist by training (what’s not to love?!), Jeannie has worked along with Abbot Placid Solari of Belmont Abbey and Dr. William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, to begin a home on Belmont Abbey College’s grounds for college women who become pregnant.

This dynamic trio has taken the war on babies to the heart of academia with a fresh new concept. Contrary to radical feminism’s assertion that it’s a choice between a diploma or a baby, this team is showing girls that there is ample room in their lives, and in their hearts, for both.

Earlier this year I was so excited by this new development that I shared with Jeannie my belief the concept will spread like wildfire.

Room at the Inn, and in the hearts of countless thousands of benefactors.

Ground was broken in June of this year for the new house at Belmont Abbey College. The house should be ready in June of 2012 and already five colleges have asked Jeannie if they might come and learn from Room at the Inn.

This past October 27 it was my great honor to be the keynote speaker at Room at the Inn’s annual banquet in Charlotte. Whatever I said wasn’t all that important. What was inspiring was the gathering itself. Over 1,100 people turned out to revel in their fellowship, their faith, and to open wide their hearts and wallets for perfect strangers. Integral to this effort has been the unified efforts of my brother Knights of Columbus in North Carolina.

Because of this outpouring of love, young mothers will know the dignity of mentorship, of a clean and safe place to live before and after the births of their babies, a place to have their children and complete their educations.

A howling rebuke to the satanic consumption of the innocents by the radical feminists.

Ample Room at the Inn, flowing from hearts set afire by the boy born amidst icy indifference so very long ago.

To Jeannie Wray, Abbot Solari, President Thierfelder, Chris and Joan Bell, and the staff at their homes, you are all in my heart tonight as I contemplate nativities old and new. You have all brought so much light into the darkness, and are the unsung heroes of the pro-life cause. The blessings of the Christ Child upon you and your benefactors this Christmas Triduum.

Merry Christmas, all.

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“And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans–and all that lives and move upon them. He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused–and to save us from our foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.”

~Sigrid Undset

Merry Christmas to all here at Coming Home. May your lives be filled with Peace, and your homes with Love. Thank you all for dropping in, for reading, commenting, and for the care you show for one another. I hope Santa is good to all! For the past two years my stocking was filled with charcoal for committing repeated heresy by teasing the children with the claim that I am the one true Santa.

I’m on track for more of the same this year!

God Bless,

Gerry

A little explanation about the Hex Sign and its Christian symbolism:

Double Trinity Tulips

The stylized tulip with its three petals is a dominate feature in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. It is referred to as the Trinity Tulip and it symbolizes the Trinity as well as faith, hope and charity. The heart in this sign (as well as other Pennsylvania German folk art) is not the heart of sentimental “Victorian” valentines. Rather, it is religious in its representation of the heart of God, the source of all love and hope for a future life. The colors in this heart are used to give them additional meaning. Red symbolizes strong emotion and blue is used to indicate strength, especially spiritual strength. The white background symbolizes purity and the solid black circle represents unity in Christ.

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Urbi et Orbi: Christmas, 2010

From his Christmas Address Urbi et Orbi (To the City and the World), Pope Benedict XVI:

“The Incarnation is the culmination of creation. When Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, was formed in the womb of Mary by the will of the Father and the working of the Holy Spirit, creation reached its high point. The ordering principle of the universe, the Logos, began to exist in the world, in a certain time and space.”

What beauty. Creation reaches its culmination when Jesus was formed in the womb, not at birth. Pope Benedict understands that creation of the human person is complete at fertilization, when in the zygotic stage a whole and complete human, in form and function, exists at the single-celled stage.

Creation is complete.

From that point on, the human person is engaged in its development, a process that exists on a continuum until death, and beyond.

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Gentle Night

Midnight. Burning the advent wreath down with the Christ Candle lit in the center. Listening to boys air choirs sing the psalms as we wrap presents and get the children ready for bed. They’re too excited to sleep, though that’s coming fast.

It’s the best part of Christmas for me. Looking at the Nativity set, and contemplating the Holy Family. How did sleep come to them that night? What did they make of the great Theophany, when Heaven opened onto earth and the angels sang? The great comfort, the fulfillment of the promise, but how? The Messiah born in a barn?

As I contemplate the Nativity, I contemplate the figures not there; those who refused a very pregnant Mary about to give birth. Why? What hardness of heart existed in that time, in that place, that a woman about to deliver was not welcomed in from the cold to a safe place, if only for the night? Where was compassion, empathy?

It wasn’t that there was no room in the inn. There was no room in people’s hearts. So the couple were shown the barn, and amidst the filth and odor, the indignity of all indignities, God came into the world as an untouchable. And as I contemplate the hardness of hearts then and now, I also see how far we have come.

I think of my son, and how in my own childhood, autistic children like him were sent away to institutions. Untouchables.

I think of the boys in his Boy Scout Troop who embrace him as is, and others like him. They’re growing up with special needs children in their classes, on their sports teams, in their neighborhoods, in their families. This has been made possible because the community of parents with autistic children have been militant. Because those who came before Joseph have demanded innovations in therapies, and plenty of services, the fields of speech therapy, occupational therapy, and special education have grown by leaps and bounds.

So has Joseph.

It’s not a miracle. We as a society just decided to do it.

We say “yes”, and God provides.

Just like a young couple so very long ago. They said “yes”, and were gifted with gold, frankincense, and myrrh for their long journey to Egypt.

My son has taught me more than I ever imagined about Divine Providence. All that God requires is a “yes.”

He makes the rest happen.

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