The saddest words in the infancy narratives of the Gospels inform us that there was “no room for them in the inn,” forcing the Son of God to be born in a hillside cave and causing us to remember an ox and an ass as His hosts, rather than human beings. And those words which nearly caused a tragedy 2000 years ago are still uttered by people today – mankind, as it were, not having learned its lesson.
The “no vacancy” sign screams out to God from people who can find the time only once or twice a year to stumble into a church because they’re “too busy.” If you’re too busy for God, you’re too busy indeed. Married couples who are possessed of a contraceptive mentality and find children a burden are modern inn keepers who have no room for the God Who comes to us this day, of all things, in the form of a child. Men and women who are always concerned about money and material possessions miss out on frequent opportunities to give God a home in the guise of the poor person who seeks aid; convinced that they need yet more, they fail to share what they already have in abundance.
It is no accident that those who celebrate Advent and Christmas best are children. They are so good at waiting and hoping. They are in a perpetual attitude of openness and readiness to be surprised. They always have room for more; their horizons are boundless, and that is why Jesus loves them so. Did you ever notice how easy it is to shop for a gift for a child? Far different from shopping for that adult “who has everything”!
Christmas teaches us the importance of making room in our lives for God. It is a divine principle of reality that nature abhors a vacuum. When God finds an empty space in the human person, He fills it up with Himself, if we let Him. You see, if you are already full of yourself, there is no room for God. The Lord Himself even followed this law of biology and psychology. Before taking on human nature, the Son of God emptied Himself of His divine prerogatives. God emptied Himself to become human, hoping that we would learn that we must empty ourselves if we would become divine. By a marvelous exchange of gifts, emptying Himself, God fills us. The silent sermon of the Babe of Bethlehem also seems to be saying that excessive self-love is really self-hate because it causes one to miss out on mankind’s greatest chance to experience meaning and beauty in life.
The birth we commemorate today celebrates anew the fact that we, too, can be born of God. In the face of such a promise, many human responses are possible: doubt, hope, awe, wonder, confusion, gratitude. However, one response is particularly worthy of a Christian – and that is joy. I do not mean any kind of cheap hilarity or temporary and superficial happiness. No, I mean a joy that makes every human sorrow and tragedy pale in significance – even war, death, poverty and loneliness; even tragedies as close to us and shocking as the effects of Hurricane Sandy and the horrific and senseless deaths in Newtown – cannot destroy Christmas for a genuine believer who has left a space for God in his or her life. Regardless of your personal hardships – and we all have our share – that little empty room in your heart is occupied by God in Christ His Son. And the Son brings with Him that sense of perspective on human affairs and human suffering which can only be described as joy – the awareness that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”; the realization that God in Christ endured the worst in His saving Passion and Death but gloriously rose above it; the faith that the Infant Jesus is also the mighty Lord Who gives to us, His brothers and sisters, the ability to do the same as He.
Lest we succumb to a soupy sentimentality, we are reminded that Jesus does not need us to come today to offer Him our greetings at His birthday party unless those greetings are part of a life lived for Him 365 days a year. We must not fall into the American trap of using religion to make ourselves feel good and holy once a year if we do not intend to give Him our love and commitment all year long. Let’s be honest: When human life has been cheapened by decades of abortion and when the “war on Christmas” is but the logical conclusion to decades of the marginalization of God and religion, can we really be amazed that our occasional prayers for His intervention seem to fall on deaf divine ears?
Of course, some people will wonder how we Christians can naively celebrate this day – when the economy is erratic, when violence and crime rise daily, when family life is in a shambles around the nation. The convert poet-monk Thomas Merton had an answer for such people, I think, in some lines he wrote describing his first Christmas in the monastery. He said: “Christ always seeks the straw of the most desolate cribs to make His Bethlehem. In all the other Christmases of my life, I had got a lot of presents, and a big dinner. This Christmas I was to get no presents, and not much of a dinner: but I would have, indeed, Christ Himself, God, the Savior of the world.”
Therein lies the answer to the questions raised. Today we hear God’s definitive response to human suffering, and we receive His last Word in a whole series of words, and the Word is His very own Son.
One final note: For Catholics, Christmas happens every day as the mystery of the Incarnation is renewed in every celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice – Emmanuel, God-with-us – abides with us and in us. And so, permit me to extend a special appeal to those here today who may not have been here since last Christmas or Easter: Make a Christmas pledge to the Infant Lord as your birthday gift to Him that you will accept His invitation to allow Him to be part of your life all year long. We know that God is never outdone in generosity, so that your gift to Him will be returned a hundredfold as He gives Himself to you, accompanied by His gifts of peace and joy. Today we make our own the plea of the carol: “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
Within a few short minutes, Christ the Lord will graciously and lovingly respond to that plea by coming upon our altar and, if we are properly disposed to receive Him in Holy Communion, by taking up His abode within us as He did within the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“Venite, adoremus. Come, let us adore Him.”
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the Solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity 2012, at the Church of St. Michael, Long Branch, New Jersey.)
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