Frigid night spurs a Christmas homilyBy: Bishop Edward M. Rice Springfield MO
My Christmas came early this year, a week early.
On Dec. 18, at 6 PM, I found myself under a bridge off Wall Street, just northwest of downtown Springfield. I received an invitation to attend a Homeless Persons Memorial service that was held, there, under the bridge to commemorate and remember the homeless who have died on the streets of Springfield. By 6 p.m., it was dark and bitterly cold. The thought of being out on the street, homeless, on such a night like that night, so bitterly cold and alone was simply a theory for me. But for many who gathered for the service, living on the streets, in the dark and in the bitter cold, is their reality each night. I could see it in their eyes.
Gathered in a circle with about 50 others, some volunteers, all persons gathered to remember friends who had died on the street; we listened to a song, had an opening prayer, read some of the names of those who had died, and then we had a moment of silence for them. Many of us held little signs with the name of someone who had parished over the years on the street.
And, as I stood under that bridge in the dark and bitter cold, I couldn’t help but think: “What am I doing here? How did I get here?” Not “How did I get to Springfield?” but “How did I get under this bridge in the freezing darkness?” Then it dawned on me—I am here because of the Incarnation! I am here because “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.” I am here because Jesus took on our human flesh and He felt bitter cold, He was homeless, and He knew hunger. And I was, at that moment, united with each one gathered in that circle. We were more than just part of the human family there: We were united in the flesh of Christ. That little recognition, that those who were with me, some homeless, some not, were related to me, part of my family. … And that is why I say, “My Christmas came early this year, a whole WEEK early.”
Just an hour before being under the bridge, I had celebrated the 5 p.m. Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral. I pronounced the words, “This is my body,” and then I held the flesh of Christ in my hands. I pronounced the words, “This is my blood,” and had lifted the chalice of His Blood. And an hour later I was with the Body of Christ in His homeless and needy members. And when I made the connection between those two very profound moments, the sacramental moment of the consecration and the sacred moment of remembering the poor who died on the street, when I made that connection, well, that is when I thought, My Christmas is here now.
You know, it is sort of like that moment in the Christmas Cartoon, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” You know the Grinch!:
“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just North of Whoville did not!” The thought of singing and toys and music was too much for the Grinch: “I know all the Who girls and boys will wake bright and early. They’ll rush for their toys! And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise, noise, noise, noise … They’ll feast on Who pudding, and rare Who roast beast … And then they’ll do something I hate most of all! Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, they’ll stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. They’ll stand hand-in-hand, and those Whos will start singing!”
It was just too much for the Grinch so He got an idea!
“An awful idea! The Grinch … decided to steal Christmas.” Of course, the Grinch could not steal Christmas. After stealing all the presents and even the Who feast, he couldn’t waiting to hear the cries of the children of Whoville who woke up on Christmas morning to no presents.
“And he did hear a sound … it started in low, then it started to grow … Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing without any presents at all!” “And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!”
I share what seems a silly story of the Grinch because you see: that is what happened to me last week, underneath the bridge, standing in the cold darkness surrounded by the poor. Not that my heart was closed to the plight of the poor. It’s just that the Lord took that event as an opportunity to remind me that I am my brother’s keeper and I, too, am the poor. I am responsible for my sister in need. And the cold, dark poverty underneath that bridge, well, isn’t that a description of that first Christmas night, a young homeless couple, in the cold, dark poverty?
Today, Christmas Day, the Church rejoices that in that profound mystery found in cold poverty, that the Second Person of the Trinity, from all eternity, came down to be one with us. And that belief makes us brothers and sisters, a family. And as family, we are responsible for the welfare of one another. With the coming of Jesus in the flesh, I am my brothers’ keeper.
The prayers for Christmas Mass remind us, if we celebrate His birth, then it should have consequences in our actions: “May we serve you all the more eagerly,” “May we live an honorable way of life.” If not, it’s simply a fairytale.
So, as we gaze into the manger scene, we should not be surprised at what we see, a frail child born into poverty. My Christmas came early this year, a week early, underneath a bridge on a cold, dark night surrounded by the poor. May each of you, too, be just as blessed this Christmas. Merry Christmas!