One of the best parts – well, at least one of the important parts – of being a priest is being with families in times of crisis. Often enough, this means I attend a lot of wakes. Especially if I have to do the funeral the next day, the wake is a privileged opportunity to learn about the deceased and the family who mourns them. Seeing how others grieve gives you an appreciation for the deceased…and, as it turns out, it helps you to realize how your own family isn’t as crazy as you previously thought.
Sometimes as I lead the family in the Rosary, or as I eavesdrop on the conversations, I hear the things people say: “Her make-up is awful.” “Oh my, she’d be appalled to meet Saint Peter wearing that dress.” “Ah, he looks better dead. It suits him.”
But sometimes, when you’re at an especially tragic wake or funeral – a teenager’s suicide, an overdose, a young parent dying of cancer – you’ll hear people say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I get the meaning of the phrase: at heart, it’s an expression of gratitude, thanking God for sparing one from the calamity one sees. We say it because we sense how fragile and precious life and how we should not take for granted the blessings in our lives.
That said, I think it is the power of Christmas to turn this phrase on its head. This is not because the message is wrong, or bad, but because it doesn’t go far enough.
When Mary was found to be with child, Joseph knew what neighbors would say:He knew they’d judge her, that they’d cluck their tongues and comment about “young people these days.” He knew sympathetic people would say, “Ah, there but for the grace of God, go I.” Their hearts would be moved, they’d say things like, “poor dear” and “bless her heart;” he knew they might do something nice for her, but they’d be glad it was happening to someone else and not in their family.
Joseph’s dream of marriage, his plan for the future, seems to be thrown into chaos. And then he has a dream. The Lord comes to Joseph as his world collapses and with a simple message: Do not be afraid. “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit this child has been conceived in her.”
· Do not be afraid –Mary carries the one who will save his people from sin.
· Do not be afraid – though there may be times of uncertainty and struggle, times of fear and doubt, know that I am with you.
· Do not be afraid – my grace does not keep you out of the muck and mire of the world, but sends you headlong into it. You are to embark upon the adventure of faith because of my grace, because my Son, is with you.
· Do not be afraid – these words Joseph heard so long ago continue to speak to us, reminding us how anywhere we have been, any chaos we confront, God is with us because He has gone before us. At Christmas, we celebrate how God doesn’t just watch our struggles; God is not apart from us and our history but is a part of it, as our companion.
I say this because Christmas cards and Hallmark moves offer us tempting images of what the “ideal” Christmas season looks like. Perfectly groomed and behaved children, a delicious dinner, laughter and merriment as gifts are exchanged. Everyone is happy, no one wants for anything, and all hearts are free and easy. But, as we know all too well, the real is usually quite far from the ideal. How many of us face
· Family squabbles and rivalries
· Hearts heavy with grief as we miss those we have lost
· Anxiety about gifts, fear about whether one has done enough for one’s family, uncertainty about what the future holds
This is the messiness of Christmas. This is our messiness and confusion, and it is this messiness God claims as his own. This is the reality, our reality, Jesus is born into.
Sad to say, Faith Hill’s song about Christmas totally misses the point: Christmas is not a feeling, it’s not a sentiment, or an emotion. It is an event and a challenge to people of faith. It is an opportunity to open up and look at our lives as they really are, to see where we are in need of a savior, and to take the risk of allowing Christ to be born in the midst of our lives.
Thus, instead of saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I” our motto and mantra ought to be: There because of God’s grace, go I.
· When you find the strength to forgive old hurts and try to build a new relationship – there is God’s grace guiding you.
· When you seek help for an addiction, or step in to help a loved one who is struggling with addiction – there is God’s grace guiding you.
· When you play with your children and grandchildren, when you laugh with your family, when you propose marriage, or shed a tear for the spouse, or parent, or child you miss– there God’s grace is guiding you.
· When you speak up for the oppressed, when you refuse to sit idly by when others are mocked, or denigrated, or told they don’t matter – there God’s grace is guiding you.
· Wherever you open your heart and your life to the Lord, whenever you open your heart in silent prayer – God is with you, loving you and guiding you, because our God is Emmanuel, “God with Us.”
God’s grace does not, and will not ever, keep us from getting dirty. This is the exact opposite of the prosperity gospel which is a terrible lie told to people. Following Jesus in our lives will not bring us profit, but peril; one cannot be a friend of Jesus and an enemy of the Cross. God’s grace plunges us into the confusion of history and gives us the strength to be ministers of the Gospel.
Consider how we come forward to receive the Eucharist. How do we saw Amen? Do we meekly raise our hands up and mumble an Amen? Do we meander back to our seats and go back to the same old, same old? Do we saw Amen out of habit without thinking of who it is we are allowing to enter our innermost selves?
Or will your Amen be said with courage and conviction? Maybe you will lift your shaking hands and think, “I am afraid to say Yes to you, Lord, but I feel you moving within me. I feel your call to me and, though it scares me, I say Amen to it. I invite you into my chaos and I will allow you lead me, step by step, out into the world to proclaim and help build the Body of Christ. I will risk myself in my own word Amen as I welcome your Word and let this Word guide me in a new direction.”
Allow me to extend to all of you my wishes for a happy, holy, and courageous Christmas. We do not need God to visit us in our dreams because we receive Jesus Christ into our hearts and our lives every time we celebrate the Eucharist together. In times of darkness and doubt, in grief and anxiety, may the light who comes into the world on this Holy Night be your guide. In times of joy and laughter, may you be a light of hope and consolation to others. Where you hear your name called into places of discomfort and uncertainty, where you feel your heart moved to respond with your whole self, I pray you open yourselves and find the courage to say yes to the truth of Christmas: There because of God’s grace, go I.