Homily, Christmas Eve, 2010
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA
A friend of mine (Jody Bottum, former editor of First Things) tells this Christmas story of his youth: Late Afternoon on Christmas Eve, the year I was eleven, my father took me with him across the river [to visit] Mr. Harmon, a rancher who lived over on the other side of the river... If you've never seen that South Dakota country in winter, you have no idea how desolate land can be... But you can't pay a visit in South Dakota, especially at Christmas, without facing food--endless besieging armies of it... From the moment she spotted us turning off the highway, Mrs. Harmon must have been piling the table... But then Mrs. Harmon began to yell, "Jim, Jim, the horses are out." And in a tangle of arms and jackets, we poured out to herd back the frightened animals... four expensive quarter-horses [got] loose on the prairie. Mr. Harmon climbed into his pickup and headed north along the highway, while my father drove off to the south. Mrs. Harmon took it more calmly. She went inside to telephone the neighbors, and the boys began to saddle three horses to ride out and look.
You have to understand the significance of that third horse, for it marks the difference between the town and the country--even a little town surrounded by country. The Harmons just assumed that an eleven-year-old boy is old enough to help, while my mother would have pitched a fit at my riding out on the prairie alone, a few hours from sundown, in the middle of winter.
[So he sets out to find the horse...] There was little chance of getting lost. I knew, more or less, how to ride, and the highway was in sight much of time. Still, as the land grew colder and darker, the excitement faded, leaving only brittle determination, a boy's will not to be the first to turn back.
I can't have ridden far through the Christmas hills--maybe three or four miles--when I came over a rise and spotted one of the horses skittering in front of a worn farmhouse. Standing in the yard was a woman, a rope in one hand and her other hand held up empty toward the horse. She was hatless and tiny, hardly bigger than I was, with a man's heavy riding coat hanging down below her knees, and she seemed very old to me. Yellow light streamed out on the cold ground from the one lit window of the house.
As I rode down, she waved me back, talking to the horse in the gentlest, lightest patter, as though nothing much had ever been wrong, really, and, anyway, everything was all right, now. He bobbed back and forth, nearer and nearer, until he touched her open hand with his steaming nose and she eased the loop over his neck.
"Bea Harmon called," she said, handing me the rope, "and told me you were all out looking for this boy. They often come to me, you know. He'll go along quietly now."
Her eyes were quick and black. "I don't see many people, here about," she chirruped, like a winter bird. "Come in and get warm. I'll make some coffee. No, you're a little young for coffee. I'll put some water on for tea, and there're the cookies I made in case someone came by." But I was proud of bringing back one of the strays and wouldn't wait. I shied away from her outstretched hand and galloped back.
Sometimes you catch sight of a turn leading off into the distance, a dirt track or a county road at right angles to the highway as you drive along in the straight, miles-long line you see only in the West. And you know you'll never go up it, never come back to find where it leads, and always there remains a sense, as you roll past, that maybe this time you should have turned and followed that track up into the distant hills.
Her hair was the same thin shade of gray as the weather-beaten pickets of the fence around her frozen garden. She had a way with horses, and she was alone on Christmas Eve. There is little in my life I regret as much as that I would not stay for just one cookie, just one cup of tea.
On this Christmas Eve, do not let the opportunity presented to you pass you by. Christ has come in Bethlehem. The Child is born. Emmanuel, God-is-with-us. Our Savior is at hand. Awake and greet him.
St. Augustine would tell us (OOR, Dec. 24), “Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man. You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would have never returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.”
If you recognize his first coming as a child in the simplicity of Bethlehem, if you listen to his teachings and act on them, then perhaps your heart will be open to see him in the many ways in which he continues to reveal himself to us today.
(HPR, Dec. ’98) I remember once reading a reminiscence written by a prominent theologian who taught at a major university. She was traveling across country to give a lecture, and it was an exhausting trip, as she had to change trains a couple times and found it difficult to eat while traveling. As she walked through one terminal, her fatigue and hunger overcame her, and she fainted at the foot of a staircase. Nearby, there was a small group of homeless men. One of them left the group and came over and helped her. He helped her up and gently sat her down on the stair. He then went off for a moment, returned with a cup of water, and stood their anxiously as she drank it up. Then he went off again, got a porter from the train she was headed to, and then helped pile her bags on the carrier. As she was leaving with the porter, she weakly tried to thank him, but he waved off her thanks with the simple words, “Oh, you’d have done the same for me!”
And she wept, for she knew it wasn’t true. Though she was a very learned theologian, she encountered Christ in a way she was not expecting in a person where she had not expected to find him.
If our hearts our open to the Child of Bethlehem, we will find Christ easily, when:
- we reconcile with with an estranged family member, even if just a card or note.
- we forgive someone who has harmed us.
- we take time to listen to the lonely or distressed.
- we comfort those who have lost a loved one.
- we help someone in need, especially during these difficult economic times.
- we gather our families together to pray, inviting him into our household.
- we make peace with our enemies.
- we bring a smile to someone's face.
- we share in the suffering of the ill, the elderly, the dying by visiting them, spending time with them.
- we encourage those whose faith is weak.
St. Teresa of Avila,would say:
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, but yours,
No feet, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.
Find Christ now. Greet him. Welcome him into your heart and your home. Hold him in your arms as did the Blessed Mother, kiss him with good deeds, embrace him with love, and tell him you love him continuously in prayer and in the people you meet.
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