Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

This was my homily for Christmas Day:

Flags at half staff.

Moments of silence.

Tolling church bells.

Internet blackouts.

These are things that have contributed to the atmosphere of the past 12 days.

And there was another: Christmas lights gone dark for a night.

Maybe many of us feel a little awkward, a little guilty even, about celebrating the holiday at all

And yet, in a way, nothing could be more appropriate.

Nothing could be more fitting at this moment in our lives together in America than to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and to remember what that birth means.

Some events — and surely an event that took place this month — may contribute to a certain pessimism about our human condition.

It’s the 21st century, we might say to ourselves in one way or another.

It’s the 21st century, and how far have we come if this is the best we can do?

What’s wrong with all of us, if some of us are capable of this, if none of us can prevent such things?

There are some philosophies — both religious and secular — that would answer those questions by saying, “What do you expect?”

“Human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures, and sooner or later they’re going to act on their worst instincts.”

But Christmas says otherwise.

What we celebrate today is that the child born in the manger was, in one person, both a human being and God himself.

We sometimes hear this expressed in negative terms.

We sometimes hear that God lowered himself, to take on the nature of miserable humankind.

But while we recognize that God is greater than any one of us, greater than all of us put together, we don’t have to look on the birth of Jesus — in fact, I suggest that we should not look on the birth of Jesus — as an act of condescension.

On the contrary, the birth of Jesus is an act of love.

 In the birth of Jesus, God shows his love for us — not only because he was willing to obscure his divine nature with the physical appearance of humanity, but because he placed such a value on human nature that he wanted to show that the men and women and children he created were fit to live in his company, fit to coexist in the same person — in the child born in Bethlehem.

God is anything but pessimistic about human beings.

Jesus demonstrated that over and over again — with Matthew, with Zaccheus, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with the woman accused of adultery, with Peter, with the thief dying alongside him on a cross, and with Paul.

He told us about it in those parables that resound through the ages: the father and his two sons, the Good Samaritan, the one lost sheep from the ninety-nine.

Jesus, who looked on human beings with such optimism, encountered in his lifetime Herod and his sons, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and people whose jealousy or paranoia inspired them to criticize him, attack him, ostracize him, eventually kill him.

But even at that extremity, the last thing he said about such people was, “Father, forgive them.”

And while we may not be able to look as deeply into those souls as Jesus did, we take him at his word.

Every now and then, someone — for reasons that we really do not understand — commits an act that might make us ask us just how low human nature can descend.

But we don’t have to look far — and we didn’t have to look far this month — to find far more people, including people sitting in this church, whose heroism and generosity help us to see just how high human nature can soar.

The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are essentially good.

 Christmas — and perhaps this Christmas especially — is a good time to recall that and to celebrate it in the words of the hymn.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”

        

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“Bide the end!”

December 24, 2010

CHARLES DICKENS

When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Minor Merchant, assigned two other students and me to write a short play based on Charles Dickens’ novella, “A Christmas Carol.” I had never read the story before then, but I have read it every Christmas season since, as I am in the midst of reading it now. In the meantime, I became a fan of  Dickens in general, and have read all of his novels and many of  his other works — some of them over and over again. Of course, I have also watched adaptations of his work for the screen and the stage. Most of Dickens’ work is too expansive to be recreated in another medium except in sharply truncated form. That’s to be understood, but I have noticed that among the elements of his storytelling that usually fall by the wayside is the intensity of the anger with which he wrote — and that is in no case more than true than in the case of “A Christmas Carol.”

Alastair Sim in the title role of the 1951 film "Scrooge"

This tale, published in 1843, reputedly changed the way Christmas was observed in Great Britain and the United States. Apparently Christmas had become an impersonal, institutional event. Dickens believed it should be centered more on the family and the home and should inspire feelings of affection and generosity. The themes in “A Christmas Carol” touched folks in exactly that way and permanently altered the way they marked the day. Dickens was not religious in the conventional sense; in fact, he famously rejected organized religion in general and religious dogma in particular and repeatedly  lampooned the clergy and their preaching. Still, he held Jesus in high regard and subscribed to what he construed to be Jesus’ central message: Love one another.

Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley.

Dickens had experienced a powerful dose of inhumanity as he grew up in impoverished and humiliating circumstances, and he went out of his way as an adult to witness the suffering of those whom the industrial revolution had left without hope of a decent, dignified life. His reaction to what he saw is often obscured in the popular images of the characters Dickens created. When Dickens was 12, his father was sent to debtor’s prison — an event memorialized by the experience of Wilkins Macawber in “David Copperfield.”  Dickens had to work 10-hour days under atrocious conditions pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking — and that was also recreated by the boy Copperfield in the novel. The fact that not only Dickens but many other children were treated so badly infuriated Dickens. He wrote about such abuse in “Oliver Twist,” but the anger with which he wrote is hardly evident in such echoes as the musical “Oliver!” And as charming as “A Christmas Carol” can be, it is darkened again and again by Dickens’ flaring temper. This indignation drives these stories, but it often gets left behind when the text is reinterpreted for the stage or the screen.

Scrooge meets the Spirit of Christmas Present

Dickens bristled, for example, over his perception that those who were well off  were not only insensitive to the poor, but dismissive of them. He put the words in the mouth of Scrooge, and the adaptations generally preserve them: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” But less familiar is Dickens’ outburst through the Spirit of Christmas Present, who – as they discussed the crippled Tiny Tim –- the son of Scrooge’s impoverished and misused clerk — hurled Scrooge’s words back in his face but went on: “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be , that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Alastair Sim as Scrooge and Francis De Wolff as the Spirit of Christmas Present

There is another exchange between Scrooge and the same Spirit that was inspired by the views of a member of Parliament, Sir Andrew Agnew, who several times introduced measures that would have forbidden virtually all activity in London on Sundays. The restrictions were skewed in such a way that they would have heavily affected the poor but would have had little impact on the rich. Among the provisions would have been a ban on popular recreation and the closure of bakers’ shops. These enterprises were already prohibited from baking bread on Sundays and on Christmas Day, but many poor families, who had only meager facilities at home for heating food, took their victuals to a baker so as to enjoy a hot meal once a week and on the holiday. As Scrooge and the Spirit are watching simple citizens bustling around the city shops on Christmas day, Scrooge remarks, “I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds around us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities for innocent enjoyment.”

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim

When the Spirit expresses surprise on being blamed, Scrooge presses on: “You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day they can be said to dine at all? Wouldn’t you?” The Spirit denies any part in such a thing, and Scrooge makes one retort too many: “Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family.” Here, again, the text provides a furious outburst on the subject of hypocrisy, as the Spirit speaks on Dickens’ behalf: “There are some upon this Earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not on us.”

The Spirit exposes Scrooge to Ignorance and Want

Perhaps one of the best-known scenes in this Christmas story occurs when Scrooge notices something like a foot emerging from the same Spirit’s robe. When Scrooge asks about it, the Spirit opens the robe to reveal two “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish children.” “Are they yours?” Scrooge asks. The Spirit’s answer is always abbreviated in the retelling, but it is worth reading in full, especially considering how they might still apply: “They are Man’s. And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it! Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” Scrooge asks.

“Are there no prisons?” the Spirit replies. “Are there no workhouses?”

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.”

Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge and Brian Worth as his nephew, Frederick

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Michael Hordern as the ghost of Jacob Marley and Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world–oh, woe is me!–and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

***

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

***

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

Francis de Wolff as the Spirit of Christmas Present and Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

***

Glyn Desarman as Tiny Tim Cratchit

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.”

***

Glyn Dearman as Tiny Tim Cratchit and Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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.

HARRY BELAFONTE

One of the songs we listen to every year while we’re decorating our Christmas tree is “Mary’s Boy Child,” sung by Harry Belafonte, who first recorded it for an album in 1956. When it was reissued as a single, it reached No. 1 on the charts in Britain the following year. It was the first song to sell a million copies in England. Mahalia Jackson also recorded it in 1956. It has been covered by dozens of other artists ranging from the Maori soprano Kiri Te Kanawa to the disco group Boney M, which took it back to No. 1 in the UK in 1978.

JESTER HAIRSTON

It isn’t widely known, but this song was written by Jester Hairston — an unusually talented and versatile figure in American music and entertainment. Hairston (1901-2000) was a composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor. The grandson of slaves, he was born in North Carolina but lived from an early age outside of Pittsburgh. He graduated with honors from Tufts University and studied music at the Julliard School. His lifelong passion was for choral singing, and he conducted ensembles on Broadway and all over the world. In 1985, when such events were rare, he took the Jester Hairston Chorale, a multi-ethnic group, to sing in China.

SIDNEY POITIER

Hairston did a lot of musical work for films. His most familiar work is probably the song “Amen” from the 1973 movie “Lilies of the Field” in which Sidney Poitier plays a young handyman who gets bamboozled into doing a lot of heavy labor for an order of German nuns in Arizona. Poitier won an Oscar for that performance, the first best-actor award to a black man. Poitier didn’t do any singing in that film, however. He lip-synched “Amen”; the voice was Jester Hairston’s.

Hairston had a lot of small roles in films — some of them demeaning, some without credit. He also appeared in the radio and television versions of “Amos ‘n Andy” — notably as Henry Van Porter, a high-end member of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge, which was the epicenter of much the action on the television series in particular. He also played Leroy, the brother-in-law of George “Kingfish” Stevens. More recent television audiences might remember Hairston for his role as Rollie Forbes in the series “Amen” that ran from 1986 to 1991.

You can hear Belafonte’s version of “Mary’s Little Boy” by clicking HERE. You can watch an amusing video HERE of Jester Hairston conducting a large choir in Odense in 1981 as they learn to sing the Christmas song in Danish.

There are interesting biographical notes about Jester Hairston HERE and HERE.

Jester Hairston, as Henry Van Porter, is front and center in this "Amos 'n Andy" publicity shot with -- clockwise from left -- Nick Stewart, Alvin Childress, Johnny Lee, Tim Moore, Spencer Williams Jr. and Ernestine Wade.