Friday, December 25, 2015

Homily: Christmas Day, 2015 by Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD

John’s gospel is always about signs – he records events in Jesus’ life and reflects on them as signs of the breaking in of the Reign of God. Many of the signs John identifies are familiar to us – turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, knowing the personal history of the Samaritan woman at the well, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, feeding the 5,000, and several healing miracles.

The incarnation of God as the Word made flesh is not identified as a “sign” by John, but that is what it is. John does not tell the birth story like Luke does or even allude to it like Matthew does. He approaches the birth of Jesus from a theological perspective: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and “the light shone in the darkness and the darkness could never put it out.” For John, the light that Jesus brought into the world is a sign that God has indeed come to live among human beings. And it’s real light. John saw the joy, the peace, the healing that Jesus brought into peoples’ lives. He experienced the lightness of heart that comes with intimate friendship. He saw signs of the coming Reign of God – healings, people helped to see both their sin and their potential, the darkness of the mentally ill flooded with the light of reason, the darkness of the man born blind as he opened his eyes to the light.

And John also saw the light in the context of the darkness of the world around him – the political posturing, the deadly power of the Roman occupation, disease and hunger and homelessness. And into all that darkness came the light of God’s love.

 Reading the gospel offers us signs of hope in a troubled world. So does reading the occasional stories of random acts of kindness which our newspapers and TV and radio news offer us when there is a little extra space after telling of the random and planned / targeted acts of violence. And I receive great hope from hearing the stories of people who come here on retreat, or my students, or the many other people we are all privileged to walk with in their journeys of faith.

I was very moved recently when I read the story of the 18th-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet who wrote “Christmas Bells” – what we know familiarly as “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” because his poem captures the tension that we live with today. There are several popular tunes for this poem, and I’ve chosen the one by John Calkin, the first person to set this hymn to music, and I think is the most familiar or at least the easiest to sing. Let’s sing the first two verses:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!  
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
Very hopeful isn’t it? Longfellow is offering us a comforting and happy picture of Christmas Day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He becomes even more ecstatic in the third verse:
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
Christmas night is over, and the day comes. Light comes. And strangely the tone of Longfellow’s poem changes as well. Or perhaps he had been feeling melancholy all night and the poem was an attempt to buoy his spirits. His son was seriously ill. His wife had died tragically in a fire a year or two before. The Civil War was raging in 1863 with no better effect than to slaughter a generation of young American men of both races.

And so Longfellow went on to pen the next two verses – the ones that are never printed in books of carols and never sung or printed in a Christmas card:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!  
 It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
You can just feel Longfellow falling into the grips of despair – as so many people do at Christmas, when the expectations for cheerfulness are high and we encounter times when we don’t feel at all cheerful. Let’s sing the next verse which describes his feelings:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong, And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 
 At this point, according to Longfellow’s biographer, he heard the bells actually break out in Cambridge, as the churches began to call people to worship. And a miracle occurred – a sign of God entering the heart of a man – and he penned the last verse, which includes the lines:
 “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, 
This may seem glib – moving from utter despair to joy at the sound of a peal of bells. But it is so often like that with us. We do not know how or why God breaks into our world, into our personal lives, into our fragile, frightened hearts – but God does. And it doesn’t take much to recognize a sign of God if our eyes and ears are open to it. Maybe the water we drink is often wine and we don’t notice it. Maybe God is raising people from the dead everywhere but they or we don’t notice. God is healing all the time, but we are often looking elsewhere and miss the moment.

Hope comes from attentiveness, from listening with the ear of our heart, looking with the eyes of faith at what is happening around us, seeing the signs – for instance of hundreds of people in this country welcoming refugees into their homes, churches inviting the homeless for Christmas dinner, intentional friendships formed among Christians, Muslims and Jews in our city.

And then the sound of a church bell may not sound so glib after all. It’s a little like the ending of Dickens’ Christmas Carol when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning after his night of frightening confrontations with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. He wakes to a whole new world, sees with completely new eyes that there is real goodness in the world. And interestingly, it is the bells in the city of London that most express Scrooge’s ecstatic happiness. Dickens says:

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, his was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long, line of brilliant laughs! 
“I don’t know what day of the month it is! said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!” 
He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!” 
And Scrooge learns it is Christmas Day.

Longfellow’s final stanza may be a little more reserved than Scrooge’s wild elation, but it is just as joyful. As we sing the final stanza, may our eyes be open to see the signs, the miracles around us, right now – the peace that we will shortly offer to each other, the bread and the wine offered by God at this table, the Christmas dinner to follow, the sharing of fellowship with friends old and new. And may we always keep our eyes and ears – and especially our hearts – open to God’s invasion in our lives. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . and the darkness could never extinguish it.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Homily: Christmas Day, 2015 St. John’s Convent Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD