Christmas arrived early at our house. The entire staff of St. Anthony's School came to dinner at the rectory last week and exchanged Christmas presents.
But the gifts came with a catch: they were almost all tacky. There was a Scotch tape dispenser shaped like a high-heeled shoe, a miniature set of bowling pins shaped like nuns, and similarly bizarre items.
If you were lucky enough to get a gift that wasn't in bad taste, you quickly lost it, since the complicated rules of the game allowed people to swap their present with one that had already been opened by someone else.
And while I was out in the kitchen, the teachers managed to hide the worst gifts all over the rectory. I can't open a cupboard without finding items that make the dollar store look like Birks Jewelers! If you forgot to buy a gift for someone you really don't like, see me after Mass and I'll offer you a wide selection!
But even tacky clouds have a silver lining. The gift exchange got me thinking about tonight's homily.
Because it struck me that in real life we sometimes reverse the rules of the teachers' gift exchange: we swap the most precious gifts for things or experiences that are of little or no value at all.
We give up the best for second-best, or even for the worst of all.
Tonight the light penetrates the darkness, and delight confounds despair. So why do I swap the light for the shadows, or joy for passing pleasures that can only weary and weaken me?
I don't know the answer to that question; it seems to make no sense to turn from the gentle light of Christ towards the harsh glare of the world and its foolish ways. But even if I don't know why we humans tend to prefer the darkness to the dawn, I do know this: the birth of Christ at Bethlehem is the answer to the violence, misunderstandings, addictions, fears, and hopelessness of our world.
Perhaps I should be more direct: this holy night offers each of us lasting freedom from the violence, misunderstandings, addictions, fears, and hopelessness that stop us from being "the best version of ourselves."
Let's be clear on this. Christmas is not kid stuff. St. Paul tells us that God has saved us, redeemed us, and purified us for himself. Christmas is the source of the grace and strength we need to live lives "that are self-controlled, upright and godly."
In modern jargon, Christmas empowers us. The light that shone through the night sky over Bethlehem now shines in our hearts—a light that warms us with the knowledge of God's love, and a light that heals us with the power of his mercy.
This simply can't be reduced to a children's story. Think for a moment of the dramatic rescue of the Chilean miners. After more than two months underground, ingenious human efforts brought the 33 captive miners to safety. No wonder it made headlines around the world.
But imagine the headlines if the rescue tube that brought up the miners had been used instead to deliver a rescuer. What would we have thought if someone had said, okay, I'll use the hole you've drilled to go down and join the men? I'll stay with them underground and help you figure out how to get us up again.
Now that would be a headline. But Christmas is far bigger news—that God came down to earth to share our danger, our isolation, our ills and our pains. And he came with a rescue plan that cannot fail if we're willing to follow it.
This is the "good news of great joy" that the angel announced to the shepherds as they shivered with fear. Good news, they said, for all the people. For you and me, in our unique struggles, worries and sin.
The good news offers a way out. Isn't that what Isaiah proclaimed when he said that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light?
The good news offers a way out of addiction and despair. Isn't that what Isaiah meant when he said the yoke and rod the oppressor has been broken?
There will be a few moments of quiet time after the homily; I invite you to look into your heart for dark spots that need the light to shine on them. Let light penetrate the darkness, and let delight confound despair.
God invites us tonight to accept the gift he offers us and to reject all the tawdry and tacky substitutes the world proposes.
Certainly, that's a tall order in the middle of the night. So please take home a bulletin—it comes with a pamphlet that suggests ways of celebrating the traditional "twelve days of Christmas," marking each day between now and the Epiphany in a different way.
This holy night deserves our full-hearted response and the brochure can help us make it in concrete ways.
Let us walk in the light of the Lord's love revealed at Bethlehem. Whatever our situation, we are loved by Him. Our first and last thought this day should be that.