My homily for Christmas 2009

December 24, 2009

"The Manger" by American photographer Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934).

The following is my homily for Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 2009. The theme was prompted by Tania Mann’s article, “A Heart of Flesh,” in her on-line journal “This Very Life.”

The other night I watched an episode of the TV series “Dragnet” that was originally broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1953.

“Dragnet” was one of the first police shows on television, and it based all of its stories on cases in the files of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In this episode, two detectives investigate the disappearance of a statue of the infant Jesus from the manger scene in a church in a largely Mexican neighborhood.

The pastor of the church tells the detectives that the statue had almost no monetary value, and that he could replace it.

But it had been in the manger every Christmas for decades, and the people of this poor parish would find a new figure hard to accept.

The statue was returned in time for Christmas Day, and many Christians probably appreciate how important that was to the congregation.

Many families, like those parishioners, consider their manger scene a part of their tradition, and no matter how chipped or faded the figures may become, they are unpacked every year and put in their accustomed place.

Tradition plays a part in many Christmas observances, but this desire for continuity in the portrayal of the nativity is especially fitting.

Because the practice of erecting a manger scene as we know it, is itself 786 years old.

It was introduced by Francis of Assisi for a mass to be celebrated in Greccio, a hill town in Central Italy, at midnight on Christmas of the year 1223.

Francis used living figures, including animals, but his tableaux was the model from which the manger scenes of today have evolved.

He got permission from Pope Honorius III to create that display because he wanted to focus attention – including his own, he said – on the circumstances in which God entered the world in the form of the infant Jesus.

He wanted to be able to visualize – and help other people visualize – the humility with which God, in the person of Jesus, began the journey that would lead to the salvation of the world.

As a matter of faith, Francis and other Christians knew that God had put aside his divine nature – had covered it up, so to speak – and had taken on not only the appearance but the nature of a human being.

Francis and other Christians knew intellectually that that was an astounding act of love.

But Francis wanted to see for himself, and to show others, the full depth of that love that God had for his people – God, who did not come to save his people by overwhelming them or terrifying them, but by embracing them.

Francis wanted to experience that love – wanted others to experience that love – on more than the level of theology and philosophy.

And so he wanted to contemplate that improbable scene in which the Creator of the Universe, the source and cause of all that is, makes himself present not only in the form of a human being, but in the form of a poor, helpless infant – no wealthier, no stronger than the least of his own creatures.

That child, when he had grown to manhood, would say that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends, and Francis knew that act of love began in the manger where God first gave himself – literally – to mankind.

Pope Benedict recently blessed hundreds of images of the infant Jesus that were brought to St. Peter’s Square by families preparing for Christmas.

And as he gave the blessing, the pope recalled the inspiration of St. Francis.

“The crib is a school of life,’’ the holy father said, “where we can learn the secret of true joy. This does not consist in having so many things, but in feeling loved by the Lord, (and ourselves) becoming a gift for others ….”

It is said that a teacher never knows where his influence ends, and St Francis, more than 700 years ago, cannot have known what he started.

But he taught his lesson well. It reverberates in our own time, as it did in the words of the late Cardinal Basil Hume:

“The birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered.

“If I want to look on the face of utter love – if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved – I … look on the image of the child lying in the manger.”

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There are two things I still have to dig out in order to observe Christmas properly. One is the heirloom manger figures; the other is the DVD of the “Dragnet” episode in which the statue of the infant Jesus  is stolen from a creche in a Los Angeles mission church. That’s the original 1953 version with Ben Alexander playing Frank Smith.

JACK WEBB and BEN ALEXANDER

For the benefit of the uninitiated, LA detectives Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Frank Smith are called to a church in a Latino neighborhood by Father Rojas because the statue has gone missing as the Christmas morning Masses are approaching. The poker-faced cops mechanically set about looking for the culprit, but have to return to the church on Christmas Eve to tell the priest that they have come up dry. While they’re standing with him near the sanctuary, they hear a racket coming from the direction of the front doors, and a little boy, Paco Mendoza, comes up the center aisle pulling the statue in a wagon. When the priest questions him in Spanish, the boy explains that he had promised that if he got a wagon for Christmas, Jesus would get the first ride. Frank Smith wonders aloud that the boy has the wagon already, before Christmas arrives. In one of the great exchanges in television history, the priest explains that the wagon didn’t come from the usual source; it was one of the toys refurbished by members of the fire department. “Paco’s family,” he tells the detectives, “they’re poor.” To which Friday, glancing at the Christ child back in its crib, says in his monotone: “Are they, Father?”

Our manger scene consists of white plaster figures, made in France, that belonged to my mother. She told me that she received the set from a Syrian priest when she was a child, and it wasn’t new then. Most of the figures have been broken and repaired one or more times, and one of the animals mysteriously disappeared about ten years ago. The set has a classic look to it, so we wouldn’t consider replacing it. It’s a few cuts above those translucent, illuminated plastic ones that have appeared on various lawns in the past week or so.

The tradition of assembling a manger scene — living or otherwise — originated in the 13th century with Francis of Assisi. The “Dragnet” crowd apparently wasn’t familiar with the tradition in which the image of the child is not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve, in time for the midnight Mass. A church like the one depicted in that episode would almost certainly have adhered to that custom. I have noticed that the child hasn’t been placed even in many of the lawn scenes that are out there now.

The child, of course, is the centerpiece of the feast, the vulnerable, innocent child who is both God and man in the belief of hundreds of millions of Christians. Why would God appear in human form — and as a newborn child? There is a learned and lovely reflection on this question on the blog “This Very Life,” written by Tania Mann in Rome. Those who are going to celebrate this holy day — and are very busy getting ready for whatever it implies for them — might want to spend a few minutes contemplating the reason for it all. If so, click HERE.