The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) – December 25th, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Nostalgia. Restoration. And a gift that, I’m convinced, God wants to give to each one of us tonight. These are the three things on my mind and my heart as we gather on this holiest of nights to give thanks to God for the (literally!) incomprehensible mystery that we celebrate. Namely, that the One through whom and for whom all of creation, the universe, everything was created—takes on our human nature in order to restore to us what has been lost, to restore something that (I’m sure) many of us here tonight aren’t even aware was lost.
And so I want to get at this with three questions. And the questions are these. Why are we here? Who is this baby? And what does he want from me, or better, what does he want to give me?
NOSTALGIA: Why are we here?
So why are we here? This one seems obvious! “It’s Christmas!” Yeah, but why? “Because we’re celebrating Jesus’ birth?” But why are we here? “Because going to Mass is part of it.” But why? “Because it’s required, or it’s our family custom.” But why? This the the question.
Christmas is a special time of the year: the trees and lights and cookies and songs. And for many of us, “going to church” is part of it (here you are!), and that’s a beautiful thing! But the word that comes to my mind when I see us here is “nostalgia.” I’ve always been told that nostalgia, the definition of “nostalgia,” is “a painful yearning for the past.” And odd as it may sound, I think that word sums up where more than a few of us find ourselves here tonight. Because even though this is a festive time, a time for family and friends and kindness and love—many of us come to this day with an intense nostalgia, an aching in our hearts, a weariness brought on by each passing year … a painful yearning for times gone by. Many of us, many more than you might imagine, find a great ache in our hearts.
Why? Well, maybe it’s because this is your first Christmas (or yet another) after having buried a loved one: a husband or wife, a mom or dad, a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a friend. Maybe we, or someone close to us, have received a diagnosis. Maybe our children are struggling. Maybe our marriage isn’t quite where we dreamed it would be, or our life in general. Or maybe we just feel like our community, or our country, or our world is falling apart. (I often get jealous of kids because kids don’t get nostalgic; they’re just so innocent. They don’t yet know what a mess things are, or they don’t know what a mess they can make of their lives.) Nostalgia seems to be a common feeling these days, and especially during this holiday in particular.
Meaning: The Root of the Crisis
In other words, we can’t deny that we’re faced with a kind of crisis. And even if you personally are in a good spot, we can’t deny that, looking around us (and probably not too far), people we know, families we know—friends and neighbors and family members are in a crisis. And the crisis is much more than this bill or that, this frustration or that, this political party or that, this disease or that, this whatever or that. The crisis—the crisis we are facing, the crisis our kids are facing (and parents, please hear this)—the crisis we are facing and our kids are facing—it’s a crisis of meaning, of purpose.
All of the surface level things that we struggle with—death, disease, money, politics, you name it—all of the surface level things that we struggle with—at the root of them, I’m convinced, is a crisis of meaning: “Why are we even here? Where are we going? What’s the point? Why do I even try?”
And I don’t think I’m off because of the blatantly obvious data that stares me in the face every day, and I’ve shared it before. For example, in 2018 the life expectancy in the United States dropped for a third straight year—first time since 1918 when the Spanish flu killed 50,000,000 and WWI was raging. Why are we dying more quickly now? Because of what’s termed “deaths of despair”: increase in suicides, in overdoses, and alcohol poisoning. 95% of the phone calls I get are not, “Hey, Father, just want to tell you how great my life is.” Nope, quite the opposite. Or here at Lyons High School, over 50% of kids say they have experienced prolonged times of hopelessness just this year, over 50% have seriously considered suicide, over 50% have made a plan about killing themself, and 25% of kids have made at least one attempt to do so.
The culture we so casually introduce our children into, the priorities we instill in them, the priorities we let them set for themselves—are failing them. And the data is clear. There is a crisis of meaning, of purpose in their life. And no amount of sports or extracurricular activities or time on their phone is going to fix it. And all the while, we aren’t addressing our own crisis. So often, we are caught up in our own search for meaning—in romances or fleeting searches for connection and intimacy; in our jobs and our search for meaning through achievement; or in our toys: the phones and cars and clothes and stuff we are constantly going after—we can be so caught in our own crisis, searching for meaning, that we drag everyone else with us. And the crisis remains: “Why are we even here? Where are we going? What’s the point? Why do I try so hard?”
And I’m convinced that the problem, the problem—we’re telling ourselves the wrong story. Our kids are hearing the wrong story. And the story goes something like this: “The purpose of life is whatever you want it to be. Set up goals for yourself. Life is whatever you want it to be. Enjoy it.” And to be fair, you can tell yourself that story; it is a free country. But from the looks of it—it doesn’t seem like that is the most helpful story in the world. So, what if there was a different story?
RESTORATION: Who is this baby?
And that leads me to my second question: Who is this baby? A story that has had an increasingly important role in my life is the Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings, was a devout Catholic, and very intentionally littered it with Catholic themes. And in these books (or if you’re lazy like me, in these movies) there is this character named Aragorn.
Now, in the first part of the story, we’re led to believe that Aragorn is just a common man, a ranger from the North; most people know him as “Strider.” But in one pivotal scene, Aragorn’s true identity, his kingly identity, is revealed. In the scene, the character Boromir is pushing back on what Aragorn has said, dismissing him. And so the character Legolas speaks up and says, “Don’t you know who you’re talking to? This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. You owe him your allegiance.” And that’s when everything clicks for Boromir, and he realizes, “This is Isildur’s heir,” the descendant of the great king. And then Legolas pieces it all together for him, “Yeah, and heir to the throne of Gondor.” But its Boromir response to this revelation that is most revealing. To this news, he resolutely and emphatically states, “Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king.” Which isn’t true: Gondor is falling into ruin, it is being mercilessly attacked; it is in desperate need of a king, a leader, one to rescue them from an enemy, and also from themselves! And yet, what does Boromir, what do humans do? Refuses to admit their need.
In Scripture, in our history, one of the darkest periods was the time when there was no king. And we are told, “At that time there was no king in Israel. And everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). And there, precisely, is the crisis we face too. We think that this is what we want (no king, do whatever you want, make up your own purpose in life), and yet this is precisely what causes the problem. They need a king, a leader to rescue them from their enemies, to rescue them from themselves. And in Scripture, that’s when we are introduced to David, the great king. The king restores meaning to life. David represents that restoration of meaning.
So what does this have to do with that baby and with us? Recall the Gospel we just read: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David.” Just like Aragorn (and this is not coincidental on Tolkien’s part)—just like Aragorn, Jesus is thought to be a common man. Until one day the curtain is pulled back, and we’re told: this is Jesus the son of David, this is David’s heir, and heir to the throne of the Kingdom of God. This baby isn’t just a cute “8 pound, 6 ounce” baby—he’s a king. And as king, he promises: to restore us, to recreate us, to bring us into his kingdom, to enlist us in his service—to offer us life, and freedom, to offer us meaning and hope. That’s who he is. He is the one through whom meaning, and purpose and everything is restored to us.
GIFT: What does he want with me/from me?
That’s a life-changing story! But it begs the question, the last question: “What does he want from me?” And it begs a lot of other questions, to be sure, like, “Why couldn’t things just be different? No crisis. No problem.” Well, there’s another scene in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo asks something very similar. Frodo is feeling weighed down by all that’s going on, and a nostalgia has crept in—a painful yearning for the past, to go home, to leave all these troubles behind—Frodo wants to avoid the crisis. And that’s when Gandalf wisely tells him, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” And that’s our question: What are we going to do with the life that has been given to us? What does he want from me?
And the answer, as simple as it sounds, is one thing: surrender. He wants you to give up. Not on life, no! He wants you to give up on the false story, on the lie that the purpose of life is whatever you want it to be, to give up on the lie that life is meaningless. And instead, he wants you you to place your faith in him. He wants you to place your faith not in romance and career and stuff—all of these goals that we know don’t solve the crisis! He wants you to place your faith in him, to entrust your life to him, to surrender your life to him.
Pope Saint John Paul II said that the goal of this (of this story, of the truth of Christ’s kingship)—the goal is that we would be overwhelmed and decide to surrender our life to Jesus Christ. The goal is to surrender, to completely and totally entrust our life to him. The thing is, if I were to ask tonight, “Show of hands: how many of you would describe yourself as having completely surrendered your entire life to Jesus?” I think we would get four or five hands. Or I could ask it, “If I looked through your calendar and your Visa bill, would I be able to tell that your life belongs to Jesus, that you have surrendered your life to him?” For most of us, probably not.
And if that’s the case for you, I want to invite you to let this be an invitation to take the next step. Let tonight be your next, or even your first step—your next step away from the ache of meaningless that we’re bombarded with every day. Take your first step away from that and toward Christ. Reject that stream of lies—the lies that life doesn’t really matter, that it doesn’t meaning anything, that this is all there is so just enjoy it—and step toward this king.
This coming year in the parish—I’ve got some exciting news, this coming year, starting in January, we’re going to be having a series of homilies and a parish-wide discussion dedicated to helping us re-engage this story, designed to help us (and others) to find our way back to God and His Church, and to help us discover who we were born to be. I would encourage you to engage that, let that be your next step. There is a great meaning, a divine purpose to be discovered in your life. God has created each one of us, you, at this particular time, placed us in this particular place—we could have been born in the 18th century in Madagascar, but no, we’re here. And so we’re going to embark on a series dedicated to helping us immerse ourselves in the story, the journey, the adventure God has destined for each one of us.
We were born for this time. Each one of us matters. You matter. So much so, that God became man: to restore meaning to your lives, to lead you back to himself, and to bring others along with you. You matter. Your life has meaning. That’s what this baby’s arrival announces. That’s what he wants to give you! And all you have to do? Give him your allegiance, your heart—surrender your life to him.