Home for the Holidays (homily)
December 18, 2011
Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-16; Luke 1:26-28
My mother used to get so excited when she got new carpets or countertops or drapes. For a while she’d be so happy. But it wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. Gradually the sadness would start to creep back in. The bitterness.
At Christmas Mom would work so hard to make the house cozy and warm, and Christmas morning there’d be all these presents beneath the tree. And we were all excited, too, for a while, the three of us boys. But it couldn’t last. No stereo or sweater or game could take away the sadness that was underneath us. The emptiness.
And I’m a lot like Mom. Barb and I have had to do some remodeling lately, we’ve been choosing colors and textures and buying things, and I get so wrapped up in all of it, so anxious, as if we’re on some show on HGTV and the goal is to have the perfect house. I’m like King David in the reading today. We all are. We’re sitting in our cedar houses, our perfect little cedar houses, and we think in our smugness that we can build a house for God, too. That we already have.
But the Lord says to David, a little amused, I think, a little impatient: you, build a house for me?
People in the media are talking again about “the war on Christmas.” They’re upset that we can’t say “Merry Christmas” anymore. We have to say “Happy Holidays.” Baloney. If there is a war on Christmas, Christmas has won—corporate Christmas, consumerist Christmas. All we hear on any street corner are silver bells, silver bells, silver bells, ad infinitum, in every store and every mall, on every radio station. It’s enough to drive you out of your mind. People who have never darkened the door of a church and never will suddenly have the Holy Family out on their front lawns, Mary and Joseph and the little baby Jesus, right next to the Santa Claus in the inflatable helicopter. With some of these houses you can see the lights from space.
Let’s keep Christ out of Christmas. That Christmas. That phony Christmas. Because He already is.
For one thing it’s not Christmas yet, it’s Advent, and both seasons are better spent in a stable or a cave, without any lights at all. Any holly or mistletoe. God didn’t come in the form of a president or a rock star. He came in the form of a fetus in the womb of a teenage girl, an unmarried teenage girl, and a Jewish girl, one of the oppressed, one of the despised, and when he was born he was born way out in the middle of nowhere, way out in the desert, where nobody was looking and nobody would know except a few ragged shepherds watching their flocks by night.
This is the true temple: not some big, spectacular building, but the body of this young woman.
When the angel first comes to Mary, in this story in the gospel today, she doesn’t run around decorating the house. She doesn’t throw a big party. She asks questions. She ponders. And then she chooses, in her courage and her faith, she chooses to let this mystery and this darkness and this enormous uncertainty come into her, come inside of her. There are so many things to admire here, but I think what I admire the most is Mary’s radical silence, her radical, creative silence, alone, in that room, that bare, ordinary room, and we should imitate her. We’re supposed to.
Christmas isn’t about what we say. It’s about what God says. Our role isn’t to walk around saying Merry Christmas and being mad when we can’t. Our role is to be quiet and to listen.
That’s what I loved about the Immaculate Conception mass last week. It was just the mass. No Immaculate Conception dinner to cook. No Immaculate Conception half-off sales event. It was the mass, lovely and quiet and sweet, and Fr. Steve’s homily was making exactly the point we all need to hear, that Mary’s birth was immaculate not because of any worth in her, not because of any virtue in her, but because of what God chose to do through her, because of the inventiveness and action and love of God himself from the very beginning of this little girl’s life, before she had the awareness or ability to do anything at all.
We keep forgetting this. We keep forgetting that Christmas takes place around the solstice, the shortest day of the year. We keep trying to block out the darkness, to overpower it with light. But the wisdom of the tradition, the great insight, is that the coming of the Savior and the coming of the solstice are intimately and necessarily connected.
Mary isn’t illuminated by the Spirit. She is overshadowed.
What we’re afraid of is death. What we’re afraid of is that we don’t really matter and we won’t really persist and so we construct all these fantasies to distract us from what we think is the truth.
But the truth is that the darkness is full of grace.
There’s a poem I love by the American poet Jane Kenyon. She died in her late forties, on her farm in New Hampshire, and in this beautiful poem she writes about her coming death with a calm and an acceptance that I think is very like Mary’s acceptance of what the angel tells her.
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through the chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun goes down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in the long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Not a mansion, just an old barn. Just a stable. And not blinding, artificial light. The darkness. The coming of the evening, like the coming of the solstice just a few days from now. And we let it come. We let it be done unto us, because only then can the true joy come, the real joy. Fr. Ignacio’s homily last Sunday was exactly right, too: that lasting joy is possible only when we stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about God. When we recognize once and for all that we can’t make a perfect house or a perfect room or a perfect self. That only God can.
That God is our true home. That we belong inside Him.
And so I ask you to pray for the repose of the soul of my mother, and I ask you to pray for all those so desperate for home, so desperate for comfort and peace.
And I say to you: let evening come.
This solstice, let’s each of us sit in a room, in the early evening, and watch the light fade away. Let’s each of us sit and watch the darkness come. And the next day, in the morning, let’s sit in that room again. Let’s just sit there, quietly, with Mary, and ponder what this greeting means.
Because slowly the sun will rise. Slowly the light will come again. Without us having to do anything at all. Without us having to think or act in any way. Each day will slowly lengthen, each day will get a little longer, until one day it will be spring, and then summer, and then fall again.
One day the child born into darkness will rise, and light will flood the world.