Who Else Was in the Manger?

386097_10100277295624250_1163952968_n When I put together the manger scene in our house, it has the usual cast of characters: Shepherds, Wise Men, sheep, cows, donkeys, a dog and of course, Mary Joseph and the baby Jesus (who we argue about the time he gets to go into the manger).

But our gospel today tells us that the Shepherds went in haste to find Mary and Joseph and the child in the manger. It was there that they let everyone know the message that the angels gave them.

“All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the Shepherds.”

It occurred to me that perhaps the stable was already inhabited by other people. After all, I’m sure there was no room in the inn for plenty of other people who were in town for the census.

My friend and colleague, Fr Jack Ledwon, reminded us recently, that “when God comes to us, He never comes alone. He always brings someone with him.” Here in this scene he brings shepherds and animals but who knows who else?

We too, are a manger. Housing God in our hearts. Opening the doors to suggest to us that we need to let more than God into our hearts. Each time we let God into our hearts we might just find that God calls us to open the door to our hearts just a bit wider to let someone else inside as well.

Who in your life is knocking on those doors this day, this first day of the year? Might we start the year out by letting someone that we often choose to keep out into our lives more readily? Is there someone who has hurt us that we now have shielded ourselves from in an unforgiving fortress? Does someone make us uncomfortable and we react by pushing them out? Are there lonely people, neglected, that are all too easy for us to ignore and not care to be be bothered.

This day, God calls each of us to be blessed by the presence of another. And each time we do, we find that we are blessed by God as well–who opens our hearts to help us find that we have a greater capacity to love than we think we do.

Of Gifts and Stars

This Epiphany we hear of the Three Kings, astrologers most likely, who come bearing gifts after following a star and finding the Christ-child.

While not Jewish the notion of the specialness of visitors who come not empty handing must truly have been a
Mitzvot for Mary and Joseph, two poor people with a newborn son who couldn’t even find lodging for the birth. Their stars were these men, three who brought gifts from afar. Gold which probably kept Jesus alive when infant mortality was quite high. Frankenscense which is given to kings, and Myrrh which prepares a body for its burial for a king who will offer his body for us.

Who is your unexpected visitor? Who has given you a gift that was most welcomed at a precarious time in your life? That gift may have been monetary or sentimental, or it may have been their presence that was more than enough. Whatever the case, remember and give thanks today.

Lord, send us stars that we might be overwhelmed by the light that reflects your love. Amen.

Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

I wrote a bit about this before but one of my former colleagues used to say that placing Santa into a Catholic Mass in any way sends a mixed message.

And I say he’s as wrong as wrong could be!

Why? Well, lest we forget, Santa Claus is a saint! And that makes Santa a Catholic, a Bishop, even!

And the real St. Nicholas was a 4th Century Bishop who was renown for his care for poor families. He would try to provide money for desperate families who would be forced to send their daughter’s into a life of prostitution in order to survive. So he would throw a gold bar through their open window and that would provide a dowry for the daughter to be married. If their window was closed, he wouldn’t give up–he’d climb to the roof and throw the gold bar down the chimney!

Santa reminds me of a great Jesuit that we have come to call Pope Francis. The usual trappings of the Papacy haven’t stopped him from going the extra yard for the poor. One of his colleagues upon his election even said to him to “Congrats! Do not forget about the poor.” Knowing of course how easy it would be to forget about the poor in the fancy Vatican residence. And reportedly, the Pope leaves that fancy place and goes into the streets at night to spend time with the poor. Can you imagine?

Santa Claus was a lot like that. He was so beloved that even non-religious people made a real person into a legend–but that legend sprang from his dedication to Christ.

So I do believe in Santa—because to not believe is to not be dedicated to Christ and to all those we are called to be dedicated to.

Is there a more famous saint than Santa Claus? That’s doubtful. He’s certainly the easiest to recognize and the one who has effected so many lives. By the same token, I’m sure the real St Nick is none too happy about how commercialized Christmas has become.

So perhaps that’s our job these days? Maybe instead of all the presents we buy, we might ask how we can go the extra yard, taking our dollars and putting them at the service of the poor in some way?

To do so, honors Santa and in turn, Christ. It also sounds like the message of Francis, who has been one of the better gifts that we could have gotten this year.

So today let’s pray in the spirit of Pope Francis, Saint Nicholas and of course, Christ, that the poor might be given dignity and a safe harbor during this Christmas time. Maybe we can consider who is sleeping on the streets and who might be awake but lonely? And perhaps we need Santa to move our hearts just a bit more so we might be filled with joy and love that comes with the birth of a Savior from a God who loves us so magnanimously!

Silent Night Without Jesus

So this isn’t even smart, never mind how offensive it might be. A choral director at a school decided it would be a good idea to perform Silent Night without any references to Jesus or Mary in order to be more inclusive.

Here’s a video of the performance:


First of all, this violates so many principles of logic, never mind any religious reasons.

So exactly why is it a silent night? Why not make it a silent day? At least that would’ve been creative. And if I don’t believe in Christ, or God? Why is the night a “holy night”? And then you went on and mentioned glories streaming from heaven. Well, you offended people that don’t believe in angels.

And lastly, just who the heck is sleeping in heavenly peace!!!???

LEt me further the point by saying that this song was actually someone’s prayer. And by changing it, you are denigrating the author’s intentions. In your effort to be politically correct you probably offended more people than if you had done nothing at all.

When politically correct …goes politically stupid.

Some days I can’t believe how stupid decisions like this get made.

Ahem…now back to my usual calm Christmas demeanor.

The Annual Telling of My Favorite Christmas Story

I’ve told this story many times before including here on this blog. It’s from my Fordham days and it never gets old. My classmates Joe Squillace and Tracy Crimmins who are both still friends today were the community service types in college and they ran the annual “Give a Child a Christmas” campaign.

Honestly it’s a pretty thankless job. It takes a lot of energy to get college students to do anything much less, running out and buying a gift for an inner city kid that they’ve never met. But Joe and Tracy were great at this. They were both well connected and they got lots of gifts donated, so much that they had gifts left over and they travelled by subway to deposit them at a local shelter. On the way back they encountered a little girl, cute as could be, on the subway.

They decided to make conversation with her and her mom, a rarity on the NYC Subways.

“Ya getting ready for Santa to come to your house?” Joe asked.

“No”, said cute little girl.

“NO! Why not?”

“Because my mommy told me that it’s two far for Santa to come all the way to the South Bronx.

Mom starts to look nervous. And Joe and Tracy calmed her with a look that said “No worries. We’ll keep the story going.”

But then the little girl said,
“But it’s OK, I already got my present.”

“Wait a minute!” Joe said. “Everyone knows Santa doesn’t come until Christmas Eve! How’d you get a present early?”

“I told you! It’s too far!” little girl said. “So Santa sends my present to this place called Fordham and we go there every year and get it from his helpers.”

Folks, you can’t make this stuff up!

Fighting back tears…Joe and Tracy both said…”Did you get what you wanted?”

And the little girl said…”I always get what I want…every year.”

And so did Joe and Tracy.

Perhaps that’s the lesson of Christmas. What gifts do we give and get that are worth far more than gold–and don’t we give and get those gifts all year long? The truth is that God gives us all that we need, if we, like Joe and Tracy, simply do all that we can with all of our gifts and talents for others.

In this season of giving, maybe it’s time for us to recall what we already have given and how much more there is for us to give? Because God came and lived as a vulnerable little baby and many people still don’t believe that this was enough. God came and died for us with the wood of the manger becoming the wood of the cross and yet, we often think we should hunger for more.

But then we meet little girls on the subway and we realize that the best gifts in life come from a place of love for one another. And that springs from God’s boundless love for each one of us.

And it is more than enough!

Merry Christmas, Joe and Tracy and all those who inspire me each year, especially my students, my colleagues and my loving wife and that cute dog who is happy to be huddling next to me for warmth.

Jesus: In or Out

So the debate rages on in our house regarding this Christmas tradition:

Do we put the baby Jesus in the manger or do we wait until Christmas for the bambino to make His appearance?

Here’s my wife, Marion’s take. “No. You wait until Christmas Eve and when you come home from Midnight Mass you put him in!”

Mind you, it’s hard to find a “Midnight Mass” that’s not at 10PM anymore, which by the way, is my all time biggest pet peeve. You’ve ruined a great joke: A guy calls the rectory and asks: “What time is Midnight mass, Father?”

“Um, Midnight?”

Not any more! Even the Vatican has moved the time back. We’ve taken one of the most identifiable Catholic traditions in the world and blown it all to bits. And for what? An extra couple of hours of sleep for our choirs and staff? It’s once a year people! There’s just something about Mass at Midnight and I long for it.

So back to the manger. My second point is that I love my wife but about five years ago, she insisted on keeping the baby out of the crib and every time I’d put the figurine in, she’d take him out. So what did she do to fix my wagon? She hid the baby Jesus! But she ran into one small problem.

She hid Him so well that she LOST Him! We had no baby Jesus that year which I’m certain equates to like 4 millennia in purgatory for her and maybe for me for causing her to hide Him in the first place! In fact, we never found Jesus again. I sang amazing grace when we put up the manger the following year. Stand ins for Jesus included some kind of Lego Jesus, a snoopy figurine (which I immediately removed!) and some other kind of baby figurine in a stroller. I finally went out and got a new one a few years ago. Truth be told he’s bigger than Joseph, which can’t be good for his ego and I can clearly hear the Mary figurine saying something like “That kid had a head like a basketball!” (But her labor pains are a whole other post)

My take is simple: The Mary and Joseph figurines are kneeling. Why might they be doing that? For their health? Praying for no labor pains? (Again, that’s a whole other post!). The scene is the Nativity and without Jesus there IS no scene. So put that baby in the manger please!

But perhaps my view is indeed more reflective and theological? Removing Jesus from the manger would be much like what we often try to do: Control God. We want God when we want Him–only exactly when we need Him, even if we’ve forgotten about God for some time. Most of the time, Jesus can be out of the way until we call for him and that suits us just fine.

A manger scene calls to us a simple truth. We are not in control, and God comes to us to experience our humanity in all of it’s fragility. As a baby! God knows our life intimately. God becomes a baby at a time when infant mortality was likely to be quite high. Joseph probably had his hands full in protecting this child and Mary probably worried non-stop.

Taking Jesus away from the manger eliminates the need for the rest of the players with the possible exception of the animals who lived in that manger.

And speaking of animals, I hope you notice the sheepdog (Ripley!) and the Chihuahua (Haze) in our manger scene. So see, I’m not so inflexible with the scene that I won’t take a bit of poetic license. Besides, every kid should have a dog or two.

Friends who agree with my wife say that I’m denigrating the whole purpose of advent by “not waiting” for Jesus. But God is already with us. Maybe it’s God who waits for us? Maybe God is calling us to pay attention to His own vulnerability, reminding us that there are so many vulnerable in the world who live in poverty just like this Holy Family?

Whatever your thoughts are on the manger scene, I hope that the baby Jesus inspires you this Christmas season. And that leads me to one final question:

Three Kings? In the manger or on the other side of the room, getting closer each day?

We Need a Little Christmas…Sez Fr. Austin

My dear friend, who I only know through his blog, Fr. Austin wrote an amazing homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent. Included is his Christmas letter to God (as opposed to Santa). And he gives us several things to think about, so be sure to go and read the whole post over at his blog. But here’s a snip:

Once again this year,
I see that I’m quicker to tell the Lord what I want from him
than to listen to hear what he might want from me this Christmas.
After all: it’s his birthday: he should get the presents!

There’s no Christmas tree here, no stockings are hung,
but there’s a table in our midst
and even today we’ll find here the very same gift we received
on the first Christmas, 2000 years ago.

Here, in the Eucharist, we’ll find, we’ll be given, the Son of God.
He came to us in the flesh, born in a stable in Bethlehem,
and he comes to us this morning in his Body and Blood
in Communion.

Pray that this gift open our eyes to the gifts we really need
and, more importantly,
to the gifts we really need to give to others.

We don’t need to wait until December 25th to find the Lord.
He’s already here with us, “right this very minute”
in our prayer, in our hearts and in our waiting…
Yes, we need a little Christmas,
right this very minute,
we need a little Christmas – now…

Amen! Amen! And indeed I say Amen! We all need just a little Christmas—the birth of a savior–and a little Christmas goes a long way. God gives more than we ever can imagine—and it is more than enough! God gives us all of Himself.

We need a little Christmas…on merely on December 25th…but each and every day. And that means that the world also needs US each and every day.

Because Christmas has indeed changed us. Forever.

Your Favorite Christmas Story…A Real One

So I have two:

One is my freshman year of college, my roommate was a big snoopy fan (and still is). I found a brand new stuffed Snoopy that looked awesome. I wrapped it up and left it for him and when he opened it I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so happy to get a gift. He hugged it and danced around our room. “I forgot how cute he looks when he’s brand new!” he said. Mission accomplished.

The second I’ve told many times before including here on this blog. It’s also from my Fordham days and my friends Joe and Tracy ran the University’s “Give a Child a Christmas” campaign. They had a bunch of leftover toys and they travelled by subway to deposit them at a local shelter. On the way back they encountered a little girl, cute as could be on the subway.

“Ya getting ready for Santa to come to your house.” Joe asked.

“No”, said cute little girl.

“NO! Why not?”

“Because my mommy told me that it’s two far for Santa to come all the way to the South Bronx. But it’s OK, I already got my present. Santa sends my present to Fordham and we go there every year and get it.”

Fighting back tears…Joe and Tracy both said…”Did you get what you wanted?”

And the little girl said…”I always get what I wanted…every year.”

And so did Joe and Tracy.

Perhaps that’s the lesson of Christmas. We need to really think about what it is that we really want. What is truly the Magis, the greater glory, that we all seek? God wants us to have that and it is always within our grasp and it might be something different from what we expected but it always brings us much joy.

OK one more. This one is from this year and Deacon Greg pointed me to it. They say anchors aren’t supposed to cry, but if Scott Pelley didn’t cry here I’d think his heart was two sizes too small. The story made mine grow three sizes after watching it.

It’s just another day of the Christmas season and so we once again say, Merry Christmas.

Boxing Day

So today is Boxing Day, a day that few know about, but is huge in Britain where is is also known as St Stephen’s Day (as it is in Catholic circles).

The origins of Boxing Day are dubious, ranging from some saying that the lower classes would bring a box to their employers who would in turn deposit coins in them for their employees (perhaps the first Christmas bonus?) to a day when the servants in a household would change places with the heads of the household and be waited on for a day. The idea behind the latter was so that the employers would appreciate all the hard work done by those that served them throughout the year.

The version I like best though is that often people would bring gifts for the poor to churches who would deposit them in poor boxes and then the clergy would distribute them to the poor. A tradition, not tied to December 26th in most churches today but also available all year round.

I remember first hearing about Boxing Day as a kid when I was watching an episode of M*A*SH* where the enlisted and officers changed places for the day. I can’t seem to find clips of that episode but Alan Alda is a Fordham graduate and I always recall that at the sign of peace at Fordham masses when I was a Freshman, they would intone this song: Dona, Nobis, Pacem….grant us peace.

So instead of actually boxing with those you might like to kill during the holiday season…perhaps praying for peace is called for: