A few weeks ago, one of our musicians asked me a question: “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” Now you have to understand, that is a nearly impossible question for me, not so much because I love Christmas songs, but because I’m indecisive. Someone asked me to come up with a Christmas playlist for a party, and it was agonizing. I was looking through my iTunes library, and all I had were things like “Lo, How a Rose”, “Ave Maria” by Chanticleer, and a Christmas CD from Frank Sinatra. You can tell why not many people ask me to make playlists…
So I may be indecisive in terms of my favorite Christmas song, but I’m very decisive when it comes to my least favorite. My personally most loathed song – past, present, and future – is Andy Williams’ “It’s the Holiday Season.” There is no way you should be able to get away with lyrics like “doop-de-doop” and “dickery-dock” when you’re singing about the Lord’s Nativity. It’s almost so cheery that it’s annoying. Sometimes it can seem shallow, because after all those wonderful Christmas parties have gone away and the presents that you’ve spent so much time buying and wrapping are strewn all over the floor, the cheer fades away. Thing about the gift that’s given in that song – socks of presents, peppermint sticks for Old St. Nick. There has to be something deeper to give this day real meaning.
Maybe a nice alternative to the Andy Williams’ song would be the beautiful song “O Holy Night,” based off of a poem written by a wine merchant in 1847 to commemorate the renovation of the parish church organ. Maybe we can reflect on the lyrics to that song:
O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
So if the gift of Andy Williams’ song is peppermint sticks, what’s the gift of this song? Freedom. The gift given by the Christ Child in this song is freedom. It hits a deeper cord, and all of us can connect with that, because we’ve all had the feeling of being weighed down by guilt. To continue:
Truly he taught us to love one another.
His law is love, and his Gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name, all oppression shall cease.
Think about the ones who are chained in this song – the poor, the lonely, the marginalized. Earlier this month, our Holy Father, Pope Francis said, “Our hearts will be filled with the joy of the Lord’s Birth. By leaving a spare place at the dinner table on the Vigil of Christmas, we remember the poor, the hungry, people who are alone, the homeless, the marginalized, the war weary, and especially children! Jesus, the Son of God made Man is present in all of them. Let us open our hearts in order that they may share in our joy.”
But the truth is, brothers and sisters, we are also that slave! We are the ones whose chains the Lord came to break. I remember earlier this year visiting a man who was dying. He was in his home on a hospice bed that had been shipped in by his family. His daughter and son-in-law came to let me into the house, and they were in tears – I have that effect on people, I suppose. So I went in to visit this man, and he was so weak that he could barely speak a word, but his face lit up when he saw me. I had the opportunity to bring him Viaticum, the last Communion to the dying, and I heard his confession. Obviously, I can’t give you the details (it was nothing big), but there were some things that this man had held on to for 20 or 30 years that he was still carrying with him! He was still chained by the guilt of these past faults. And I remember after Confession, as I was putting on my coat to leave, he said, “Father, thank you. Now I’m free. Now I can go home.” Wow. That’s one of the blessings of being a priest. When these chains of sin or guilt seem abstract or melodramatic, I get to see Christ break them in a real and concrete way every day.
It’s a simple message that God gives us through this child. He gives it by becoming a human being, just like us. He gives it by becoming a helpless baby. He gives it by coming down from the splendor of heaven to live a regular life right in the middle of the pain, injustice, sorrow, and suffering of our fallen world, as if to say something that each of us needs to hear – “I haven’t given up on you.” Even if we’ve given up on ourselves, even if we’ve given up on practicing our faith frequently, even if we’ve given up on God entirely, he hasn’t given up on us. That child is more powerful than our selfishness. His loving smile is more firm and faithful than our infidelity. His wisdom is deeper than our ignorance. His star in the night sky is brighter than our darkest darkness. God hasn’t given up on us – he invites us back to his manger’s side today.
Now it’s easy to say these words, and it’s easy to sing them, but it’s not always easy to believe what they have to say. No matter how nice we dress up today, or what kind of gifts we give to others, we all know what’s underneath. We all know our weaknesses, failures, and regrets, some of which we might bring with us today. But on this feast, the Lord tells us that we no longer need to be afraid – he hasn’t given up on us. He wasn’t born in a marble palace in a crib lined with velvet. He chose to be born in a damp, smelly cave full of moldy straw and animal droppings. Maybe we think that our hearts are like that cave, and we don’t really believe that God’s love should be there or can be there. Christmas proves that he can, and he does, and that he longs to be there. On this holy night, this night divine, he comes into the dark, smelly cave of our hearts and fills it with light, joy, and peace.
So what’s the best response? As the song tells us, fall on your knees, hear the angel voices. Hear the voice of God speaking to you today. That’s why we are here – to give thanks and praise to God for all he has done for us, as we do every time we come to Mass. We give him thanks for not giving up on us, but for the gift of freedom. This is a gift not wrapped under the tree, but wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, on this Holy Night, this Night Divine.