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Monday, December 24, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Fr. Michael Silloway
Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity
24 December 2012

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.  Enkindle in them the fire your love.  Send forth your spirit and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.

     There is a song that is sung leading up to these days of Christmas joy: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. 

     Christmas has personally always been my favorite time of the year.  There’s just something about it; families travel crazy distances to be with one another.  The excitement of children over what will be under the tree.  A time to splurge in caloric indulgence.  We rejoice.  We celebrate.

     Even the cosmos echo the celebration.  Think about it: how appropriate is it that right after the shortest day of the year (Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice), that Jesus Christ is born, the Light of the World.  When the Earth is at its darkest, when it seems the darkness is conquering the day, BAM! In comes the true light, the light that the darkness cannot overcome.

     Yet our experience of Christmas and its wonder down here in metro Atlanta doesn’t exactly line up with the words of that holiday song.  Much of the Northeast and Midwest are being pounded with snow, cancelling flights and snarling holiday traffic; but besides a freak winter storm once every other decade, we don’t get the chance to go caroling out in the snow.  In fact, in my 20 Christmases here in Georgia, it’s rained for at least half of them.  Not good caroling weather.

     I don’t know of many families who set aside marshmallows for roasting, and no one has ever come up to me and said “BE OF GOOD CHEER!”

     So perhaps the lyrics of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” don’t apply so readily down here in a Southern Christmas.

     But there are two Christmas songs in particular that no matter where you are, or where you’re from, will ring out with true Christmas spirit.  They happen to by my two favorite Christmas songs, and when I think of the nativity scene that our Gospel from Luke portrays, these two songs hit the nail on the head, and will hopefully speak something to our hearts about this simple yet profound, this solemn and utterly joyful event.

Silent Night and O Holy Night

Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.  Round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild.  Sleep in heavenly peace.

     It’s a lullaby.  How perfect.  And at the same time how strange.  “Silent night?”  Why silent? Have you ever thought about how strange it is that when the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the savior who, as God, bears divine and immense power, when he is born into the world, we sing a lullaby.

     How strange, but yet how perfect.

     God’s plan of salvation involved him sending his Son to be like us in all things but sin.  Only one like us could undo the original disobedience of Adam and Eve.  And only one like God had the power to do it.  So here we have the baby savior, being cradled right up to the heart of his mother.  He is God almighty and Lord of Hosts, the One whose hands made the universe, yet he humbled himself so much that his chubby little baby arms can’t even touch the snouts of the cattle that surround his manger.

     The silence and stillness of the nativity urge us to slow down.  Silence can be unnerving.  The lack of distractions makes us listen to our inmost thoughts and feelings.  We become open to really experience what’s happening around us.

     No quick movements: you’ll wake the baby!  No loud noises, no sudden jolts or sounds.  Just watch the baby.  Have you ever watched a baby sleep?  It is holy.  It does something to you to watch a baby sleep.  The innocence, the purity, the hopefulness.  Your heart goes out to them.

     Imagine Mary rocking her newborn to sleep.  Imagine the stillness and peacefullness.  You moms out there know the feeling; that feeling of holding your baby.  And it doesn’t go away…it never goes away.  Even when your baby is 25 years old, something burns within as you hold your baby.  There is a mystery of love so real that words fail to give it adequate description.  There is a love there that cannot be put into words.  Silent night.  Holy Night.

     And as the silence and serenity of this sacred moment washes over us, we hear the soothing melody of O Holy Night, a truly stirring Christmas song that plunges us into the depth of meaning and importance of this tender moment.

O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining.  It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. 
     The scene is set.  It’s a nice night.  The stars are out.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
     From the fall onward to this moment, sin has reigned in the world.  Without the light we stumble in the darkness, without the truth, we fall into all kinds of error.  Nothing makes sense in a world without truth.  But then came Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He gives meaning to our lives.  Loving him and following him are the way to true happiness.  The soul feels its worth because it is resting in the hands of the One who created it!

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
     When you work extra long hours and your brain is fried and you see there’s only 10 minutes left before you can bolt out the door, you get a thrill of hope.  This day will end!

     When you’ve wandered long through the desert of life, lost, parched, famished, tired, beat and emotionally spent, and you finally see relief, your wearied world rejoices.  I’m going to make it out alive! 

     When you’ve been trapped in sin for days, weeks, or years, and you hear the good news that Jesus Christ can and will set you free, then you rejoice.

Fall on your knees!  O hear the angel voices!  O Night divine!  O night when Christ was born.  O night, o Holy Night!  O night divine!
     The music takes on a stark and serious character.  There’s a sudden gravity as we’re told to drop down to our knees in adoration before this baby.  He’s no normal baby.  This is the Son of God.  This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  The wood of the cross he will mount for us is foreshadowed in the wood of his manger-crib.  He is born in Bethlehem, the city foretold to be the place where the King would be born, the city whose name literally translates “House of Bread”.  And in this divine bakery is a manger, an eating trough for the beasts, and in this eating trough is placed the one who will proclaim himself the Bread of Life and who will tell us in the Gospel that his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink, and that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we will not have life within us

     The angels cry out that the savior has come!  Emmanuel, God-with-us is born.  A child has been born for us, a Son has been given.  Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will!  This is where we get the Gloria that we sing on Sundays—we’re singing the song of the angels as they praise God for sending his Son.  We JOIN THE ANGELS!  I love being Catholic!

     Do we see God’s mysterious plan of salvation unfolding right in front of us?  Do you see what God is doing?  Jesus himself is the bread that came down from heaven, the food that nourishes us, the daily bread we pray for each time we recite the Our Father.  Blessed John Paul II, on his last Christmas before he died, said that “on this Holy Night, adoration of the Child Jesus becomes Eucharistic adoration.”

     To look upon the baby Jesus is to see the lengths God will go to show us his love.  From the very first moment of his existence, he is given for us.  His life was not his own.  He sacrificed for us.  Every beat of his heart says “I am here for you.” 

     You’ve probably heard that every Mass is a little Easter.  Well, it’s also a little Christmas.  The Holy Spirit makes Jesus Christ truly present in the Eucharist.  We sing him songs, we cry out with the angels, we sit in silence to speak to him heart to heart. 

     As individuals and as families, take this Christmas as an opportunity to slow down, to make room for silence and stillness.  Let your heart take in the depths of Divine Love, of this Silent Night, of this Holy Night.  As Jesus Christ came to be our forgiveness, offer the gift of forgiveness to someone who has wronged you.  Perhaps make a New Years’ resolution to sit with Jesus in the Eucharist for a little time each week.  Or recommit yourself to ridding your life of a sin or vice that has long plagued you.

     Christmas reveals how simple a relationship with God is and how powerful simplicity is.  He came as a baby, just like you and I did.  Do not be afraid to hold and cherish this precious child.  Do not be afraid to fall to your knees and to give him everything.  It is through him and him alone that you will find this to be absolutely, without doubt, the most wonderful time of the year.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.
Merry Christmas! 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

O Antiphons Day 2: O Adonai

O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,
who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

Today is the second day of the O Antiphons in Evening Prayer.  Yesterday proclaimed Jesus Christ as the ancient Wisdom that was present at the founding of the world, the very logic of all creation, he through whom all things came to be.

Our antiphon this evening draws us into the mystery of the lordship of Jesus Christ.  

To call Jesus "Adonai" is no small thing.  Adonai is one of the terms used in the Hebrew language to speak about God, the God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and revealed his name to be "Yahweh".  God's name is so sacred that they would never pronounce it, nor would they ever write it out completely.  This is why in some Bibles you'll notice reference to the diving name as spelled out in all caps without the vowels: YHWH.  His name is simply too sacred to be spoken by mortal tongues.

After the crossing of the Red Sea, the event that definitively set them free from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrews wanted to speak and write about this God who so marvelously kicked Pharaoh-butt.  Wanting to keep holy the name of the Lord, they used a new words to reference him, namely Adonai and Elohim.  These words are what you will find in the Hebrew manuscripts when our English translations have LORD in all caps.

This LORD is the one who saved them.  This LORD gave them the Law to guide them to righteousness.  This LORD is the one whose mighty arm beat down their foes.  This LORD is the one who spreads out his wings like an eagle to gather in his brood.  This LORD is Jesus Christ.

To call Jesus "Adonai" is to associate his saving action on the cross with the saving work that had been at work for the previous several thousand years.  Jesus saves us from our sins, he gives the new law that leads us to righteousness through sacrificial love; his victory beats down our foes; he spreads out his arms to gather into one fold all his sheep.  Jesus Christ is LORD!

Monday, December 17, 2012

O Antiphons, Day 1

O Wisdom, O holy Word of God,
you govern all creation
with your strong yet tender care.
Come and show your people
the way to slavation.

Today, Dec. 17, marks the one week mark to Christmas Eve.  There is a neato liturgical phenomenon that begins with Evening Prayer tonight called the "O Antiphons".  For the next week, the Magnificat antiphon of Evening Prayer will contain the titles of the Lord that comprise the verses of the classic Advent song O Come O Come Emmanuel:
Root of Jesse
Key of David
King of the Nations

Take a look at them in Latin now.

Radix Jesse
Clavis David
Rex Gentium

When you take the first letter of each of these titles of the Lord in order, you get Ero Cras, which in Latin means "I'm coming tomorrow".

So with the completion of the O Antiphons on Christmas Eve, we can sense the closeness of the Lord who comes to us as a little Baby in Bethlehem and we hear him cry out that he is coming to save us.

And this, my friends, is one of the MILLION reasons why I love being Catholic.

(It should be noted that the antiphons appear in reverse order in the liturgy, starting with Wisdom and ending with Emmanuel.)


One of my priest brothers here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta has written a stellar article on the spirit of Christmas.  This is for the SERIOUS CATHOLIC.

It's called "Keeping Christmas in Christmas" by Father Joshua T. Allen.  Enjoy!


The stores are decorated, all of the Christmas fare has been out for purchase since shortly after Labor Day, trees are being snatched up at lots all over Atlanta, and lights will soon be going on, that is, in the homes that bothered to wait until after the Fourth of July to decorate.
In all seriousness, the Christmas blitz has begun. Two weeks ago, I started preaching about keeping Christmas simple and keeping the season of Advent intact. And in doing so, I have joined a chorus of voices from the Church that have exhorted the faithful to be on guard regarding the nearly blasphemous materialism that has so often shrouded the true meaning of Christmas.
Christmas, now more a material than spiritual event, is celebrated earlier and earlier each year. Not surprisingly, the rapid ascendency of the secular material Christmas has corresponded to the secularization of the faithful and the increasing assaults from both within and outside of the Church on her fundamental mission, which is to proclaim the saving message of Christ in the world. Unfortunately, these days Christ has less and less to do with Christmas.
But, I believe in Christmas. I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe that it is possible to salvage the true meaning of Christmas, though I think it will require some serious sacrifices. The purpose of this column is to assist you with some ideas on how to make Christmas truly special while keeping Advent intact. I recognize that our culture has progressed to an extraordinary level of false celebration that will be very difficult to overcome, so I am not expecting the complete and full reversal of the troubling remnants of the secular trends in Christmas; rather, I would like to make some suggestions that can help you and your families to make strong steps towards a deeply Christian and less material experience of Christmas.
First, some principles:
1) We assume that the most joyful Christmas ever celebrated was the one in Bethlehem when Jesus entered into the world. This Christmas was a notable mixture of poverty and splendor. Christ was born in a less than glorious place, but the entire magnificence of the heavenly host appeared to a poor shepherd in the middle of a field singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and indicating the coming of the savior.
2) To the extent that we can approach the fundamental truths present in that first Christmas, our personal experience of Christmas should approach the joy experienced by Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the angels. Those truths are simplicity, glory, family, and a fundamental orientation to the incarnation of Christ in our lives.
Keeping these principles in mind, if we can devise even small strategies designed to emphasize simplicity, glory, family and the personalization of the Incarnation in our lives, we should be able to help our own families to experience Christmas more deeply.
To this end, I recommend considering the following:
1) Decoration. For many families with strong family traditions, the expectation that Christmas decoration would be delayed until Christmas Eve is unattainable…at least not as a first step. To be clear: I think that is the ideal. But ideals are not always easy to attain. Many families keep the wonderful tradition of slowly filling the family Manger scene with figures on the Sundays of Advent. On the first Sunday, the stable or structure itself is put out. On the second Sunday, the animals can be put in the scene. On the third Sunday, the shepherds can be placed in the field, and other figures inserted. The fourth Sunday brings Mary and Joseph, and then Christmas brings the baby Jesus and the Angel proclaiming the “Gloria.”
But, I recommend something further: the central figure in secular Christmas decoration is the Christmas Tree. I recommend that you go ahead and decorate the whole house as you normally would, but don’t turn on any of the lights. Put up your tree, but don’t decorate it. If you like, place some purple and pink ribbons on the tree to indicate that we are still in Advent. Make the Nativity Scene the focus of the decorations.
On Christmas Eve, in the morning, decorate the tree with your family. But don’t turn on the lights yet. Only once the sun goes down (or, if you attend a Vigil Mass or Midnight Mass, after Mass) do you light up the tree and the house and place the Baby Jesus in the manger. Then keep your decorations up and lit until January 6, the Epiphany.
What will the neighbors say? They’ll think you’re crazy. And they will ask you what you’re doing. And then you’ll have the opportunity to explain what Christmas is really about. And they’ll still think you’re crazy. But hey: we’re Catholics. We can all be crazy together. What I can assure you is that if you do this, your family will experience a holier and happier Christmas than otherwise.
2) Gift Giving. You’ll notice that in the first Christmas, there was no gift-giving until the Epiphany. I am a big fan of waiting to give gifts until after Christmas…letting Christmas Day be about Jesus Christ, and then letting the gifts come later. However, I recognize the difficulty of this proposition.
But, what can you do? Keep one gift for each member of your family for Epiphany. Your tree is going to be lit for the next 12 days anyway…it might as well have gifts under it! Make the Epiphany gift the best one, and make sure that you discuss with your family the mystery of the Epiphany…the coming of the Wise Men and the fulfillment of the aspirations of all the world in the coming of Jesus as savior…before you give your gifts.
I promise you this: you and your family will stay in the Christmas spirit if there are gifts yet to come, and this small act will dramatically increase the religiosity of your Christmas season.
3) Parties. It’s probably too late for this year, but consider next year having your Christmas party after Christmas Day. First of all, everyone is available, as long as you don’t have it on the 26th, because then all of your friends will be busy taking down their decorations. Have your party on one of the days in the Octave of Christmas! Secondly, everything you offer at the party will be cheaper, because you can benefit from the after-Christmas sales!
4) Prayer. Ask yourself this question: do you spend as much time praying about the true meaning of Christmas as you spend decorating and shopping and preparing for the material aspect of the holiday? If not, it’s time to change. Consider taking your family to Mass every morning the kids are off from school during Christmas. The Mass readings are awesome…we literally celebrate Christmas for 8 days! Pray the Rosary with your family during Christmas…even if you never do it. Yes, the kids get restless. Maybe it doesn’t even seem like prayer. Jesus understands. Mary understands…she once had a little munchkin running around too.
5) Almsgiving. Consider setting aside ten percent of your Christmas budget to assist the poor. Will this make things tighter? Yes. But, if we accept that there has never been a more joyful Christmas than the first, we should discover that simplicity is something that makes us happy.
Also, ask your kids to choose something that they really love (and you do the same), and to offer that very thing to someone less fortunate than them, even if it is something they have just received for Christmas. This can be easily accomplished through the St. Vincent de Paul society. And do this on the Epiphany, which will truly help your family to understand the greatness of sacrificial giving.
Now if you’ve actually made it this far in the column, you think I’m crazy and out of touch and asking the impossible. But here’s the thing: I know families who do each of these things, and more. And they are the happiest families I know. They are the families that are not constantly stressed at Christmas.
We have to be honest, to look at our culture, and to ask ourselves whether what is going on is really something we want in our families? Then, we have to recognize that it is already in our families! This is not the work of prevention, but the work of correction. If we believe in our hearts that Jesus Christ actually has something to offer to this world, we should live as if we believe it, even to the point of making sacrifices.
Whether these suggestions are the right thing for you or not, I encourage you to consider them and to come to some resolutions about how best to celebrate the holiness of Christmas in your families. God Bless, and Happy Advent!