Friday, December 26, 2014

It Doesn't Belong There

Readings for Christmas Masses:
Vigil Mass
Midnight Mass
Mass at Dawn
Mass during the Day

If you watch social media or late night TV you have likely seen or heard of the SNL skit that parodies the ‘annual Christmas trip to church’ in which we see persons such as Pastor Pat, whose weak sermon is rivaled only by his weak jokes and the weak laughter from the congregation, the organist who hits all the wrong notes, and the choir that sings all 44 verses of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’. I know some folks have gotten upset saying that we shouldn’t talk about the holidays in such a way, but if we can’t laugh at ourselves and our church’s quirkiness then I think we’re in trouble. If you’ve seen the video I’m sure you can relate to some of the things they joke about. But what struck me wasn’t so much the humorous aspect so much as the underlying kernel of truth that our contemporary world (especially my generation and younger) has a struggle connecting with the Church. The world is routinely pulling folks father and farther from the faith and that video spoke to me of that reality through the media of comedy. But what strikes me even more is that every year at Christmas, what the skit notes actually comes to pass: thousands upon thousands of people who don’t darken the doors of a church throughout the year come into these sacred places and enter into the celebration of Holy Mass. Every year churches fill back up, if only for a day, because there is something that draws us here. It’s more than just making our parents, spouse, or friends happy; it’s something deep within us that compels us to come once more.

The other day we were setting up here in the church and I was over playing with the nativity scene. This is actually a favorite pastime of mine. At my home parish in Denham Springs there was a large set of figurines from all sorts of gospel passages and a nice big landscape with houses and all sorts of things. In the midst of the many characters there were a great many little sheep. The lady who kept up with it was a good friend and so I used to go and move the sheep around. She’d walk by and find a sheep on a roof or in a tree. Or the man with arms outstretched in prayer was now holding a sheep with each arm. And she’d see it and just shake her head and say “Oh, Brent!” Well, that tendency came back and I picked up that little lamb next to St. Joseph and put him in the empty manger, turned around and said, “Behold, the lamb of God!” Those around me just laughed a bit and probably thought ‘what are we gonna do with this crazy little priest?’ I smiled and said, “I know. I know. He doesn’t belong there.” And so I put it back at the feet of St. Joseph and we continued working.

Later that evening I was sitting there praying with the empty manger and I began to think of how often I have tried to fill up the empty space in my heart with things that didn’t belong there. We all try it at some point and in some way, but it struck me the many ways it had taken shape for me. We can do it with our sins: I’ll commit this sin just one more time and then I’ll be happy…one more time…one more time… and no matter how many times it is, it’s always one more time because it never satisfies. We can do the same with possessions or wealth: many times I’ve bought books, CD’s, shirts, concert tickets and more, all in the hope that I’ll be filled even for a moment and yet come up empty. Sometimes it’s not sin or things but intangibles: if I can just get a little more honor, power, respect, etc. We can take these and so many things and make them our goals that we think will ultimately bring us happiness and every one of them falls short because the hole in our hearts can be filled by only one thing: the One True God.

The invitation for us, then, is to do our best to recognize what truly brings fulfillment and to seek after it. Though we’re often unaware, the manger scene speaks this message in the form of the ox and the ass. Tradition nativities include these two animals not because they were necessarily at the event itself but because of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (1:3) The figures remind us that they knew where to find their fulfillment but broken humanity still wanders from place to place. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Every time a man knocks on a brothel door, he is really searching for God.” The wandering that we do, whether it leads to brothels or any number of other places, ultimately manifests the reality that we’re searching for the peace of Christ Jesus and if we stray 1001 times, filling our hearts with that which doesn’t satisfy, then 1001 times Christ comes to us and says, ‘I know what you’re looking for and that this isn’t it. Come to me and I will give you rest.’

This rest is often sought as we hear the words of God speaking through the psalmist: Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46). But in light of the feast we celebrate, it might behoove us to make use of another translation of the original text from St. Jerome, one of the Early Church Fathers. His translation says not ‘Be still and know that I am God’ but rather ‘Be EMPTY and SEE that I am God.’ As we come today to celebrate the entry into our world of the God-Man Jesus Christ, let us set aside those things that we have so often sought as our fulfillment that we indeed might see that He is God.