I’ve just spent a week with some extraordinary people. On Monday, I attended a meeting in Toronto with the Catholic evangelist and author Ralph Martin, together with a number of other men and women who share his ministry of teaching and preaching the Gospel message with conviction and passion.
On Tuesday, I visited Msgr. Les Ivers, a classmate of mine who helped organize two papal visits to New York. We strolled through Manhattan disguised as tourists, only to hear a flock of happy and habited young Sisters skating on an outdoor rink shout “Monsignor!”—first at him, and then at me, since one of them is from North Vancouver. They were Sisters of Life, an energetic young community founded by the late Cardinal John O’Connor.
On Wednesday I met Archbishop Timothy Dolan. He is a very imposing figure, and drew a great laugh when he said “there is one spot in the Cathedral crypt reserved for my predecessor, Cardinal Egan, and a spot and a half for me!” (When he was named Archbishop of New York, Archbishop Dolan was asked what the difference was between him and Cardinal Egan. “About sixty pounds,” was his quick reply.)
The occasion at which I met the archbishop was a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Fulton Sheen, perhaps the most impressive preacher ever to climb the stairs of the Cathedral pulpit or any other for that matter.
And on Friday I spent the day with my old friend, the spiritual writer and well-loved speaker Father Benedict Groeschel, frail but forceful after barely surviving being hit by a car some years ago. He is a rival to Archbishop Sheen as a powerful speaker and courageous witness to the faith.
Truly remarkable people who have done and are doing remarkable things to build up the Kingdom of God.
But where does that leave the rest of us? No-one’s offering me prime time on TV; I don’t have the gifts or even the energy of these champions of the Christian cause. How can I and how can you even begin to live the Gospel in a remarkable way?
In today’s readings, both St. Paul and John the Baptist give us simple answers to that question. They tell us that there’s no need to be extraordinary people to live the good news to the full in our daily lives.
Let’s look first at what St. Paul says. It’s simple enough, but I’d like to boil it down to a few verbs: Rejoice. Rejoice! (He says it twice!) Pray. Be gentle. Don’t worry. Be grateful. And you will have peace.
While I was away, a thoughtful parishioner e-mailed me something off the internet called “A Letter from Jesus about Christmas.” It was really directed at our American friends, who are quick to protest the political correctness that creates “Holiday Trees” out of Christmas trees and magically turned Starbuck’s “Christmas Blend” into “Holiday Blend” a few years back. We have the same problem here, but unlike the Americans we can’t be bothered to organize a protest or a boycott.
But the "letter from Jesus" showed very well the simplicity of His message. Here's what it said:
“It has come to my attention that many of you are upset that folks are taking My name out of the season.
How I personally feel about this celebration can probably be most easily understood by those of you who have been blessed with children of your own. I don't care what you call the day. If you want to celebrate My birth, just get along and love one another.
If you want to give Me a present in remembrance of My birth here is my wish list. Choose something from it:
1. Instead of writing protest letters objecting to the way My birthday is being celebrated, write letters of love and hope to soldiers away from home. They are afraid and lonely this time of year. I know, they tell Me all the time.
2. Visit someone in a nursing home. You don't have to know them personally. They just need to know that someone cares about them.
3. Instead of giving your children a lot of gifts you can't afford and they don't need, spend time with them. Tell them the story of My birth, and why I came to live with you down here. Hold them in your arms and remind them that I love them.
4. Pick someone that has hurt you in the past and forgive him or her.
5. Instead of worrying about what a store calls the holiday, be patient with the people who work there. Give them a warm smile and a kind word. Even if they aren't allowed to wish you a “Merry Christmas” that doesn't keep you from wishing them one. Then stop shopping there on Sunday. If the store didn't make so much money on that day they’d close and let their employees spend the day at home with their families
6. If you really want to make a difference, support a missionary—especially one who takes My love and Good News to those who have never heard My name.
7. Here's a good one. There are individuals and whole families who not only will have no "Christmas" tree, but neither will they have any presents to give or receive. If you don't know them, buy some food and a few gifts and give them to the St. Vincent de Paul Society or some other charity that believes in Me and they will make the delivery for you.
8. Finally, if you want to make a statement about your belief in and loyalty to Me, then behave like a Christian. Don't do things in secret that you wouldn't do in My presence. Let people know by your actions that you are one of mine.
Don't forget; I am God and can take care of Myself. Just love Me and do what I have told you to do. I'll take care of all the rest. Check out the list above and get to work; time is short. I'll help you, but the ball is now in your court. And do have a most blessed Christmas with all those whom you love and remember… I love you.”
I’m a bit uncomfortable quoting something from the internet in a homily—maybe I feel it’s too simplistic. But is that letter any more simplistic than what Paul wrote to the Philippians? Be gentle. Rejoice. Pray. Be grateful.
John the Baptist isn’t much fancier than the anonymous internet author either. Look at what he says: Share. Don’t cheat. Be satisfied with your pay.
And after I posted my homily on the internet, a friend e-mailed me to say that she would add two things to Jesus’ wish list. People could (a) send a card to a widower/widow. The first three years are pits of sorrow, she wrote from experience, especially after the first year when people think they’re healed and they’re not. And (b) strike up a conversation with a homeless person. It doesn’t have to be profound or paternal, just person-to-person, as you would with someone at a bus stop. Often our eyes don’t see them.
It sounds a bit like the book that came out some years back called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Now everyone knows that life isn’t always simple, and that there’s a whole to learn after kindergarten. But that’s no excuse for over-complicating Christ’s message, which He himself boiled down to loving our neighbour as ourselves.
If we don’t have the basics in place—justice, joy, prayer, and charity—we can’t expect to move forward with Christ in Advent. Those basics are what prepare our hearts to receive the peace that is God’s Christmas gift to each one of us.