Sermons

Dec. 20: Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God.” Pope Francis, “The Joy of the Gospel”

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In reading today’s gospel from Saint Luke, we hear of the joyful encounter of Mary and Elizabeth. She (Elizabeth) says “the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” Scholars say this is a reference to David who danced before the “ark of the covenant.” This is the kind of joy we should have during this Christmas season. But do we?

Like Mary and Elizabeth “whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God,” and as Pope Francis tells us it is the cause for joy.

Youngsters know “Christmas joy.” I’m not so sure about adults, however.

Last Sunday evening, I was invited to a Christmas gathering at the home of a young couple whose wedding I performed several years ago. This was my first visit to their new home. Courtney and Liam have two children, Diego and Lila ages 5 and 7. Their new home is very comfortable, but not yet overly decorated, and frankly it looks like the 1950’s TV set for “Father Knows Best.”

Smartly, they want to live in the house before they do anything to change the atmosphere. Instead of knocking down walls, installing granite counter tops in the kitchen, they want to live in it, and savor this time in their lives and the lives of their kids.

At their home there were six children (five boys and one girl) ranging from 5 to 8 years old, and eight adults. The kids attend the same Catholic grammar school, and are classmates, and very close to one anther in age. In the TV family room, they were having the greatest time – watching video, playing games, and getting into the Christmas spirit.

Nearby, in the dining room, moms and dads, two teachers, and me were in the middle of “adult talk” and maybe having a more difficult time of getting into the Christmas spirit. Our conversation told me that there are troubles that swirl around us in this grown-up world of ours; and like the Grinch, these troubles can rob us of the joys of Christmas. With the world as it is – how to foster Christmas spirit for adults is a concern of mine.

So here are three prescriptions calling to mind Pope Francis’ words, “Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God.”

Our first prescription is about the “transformation of the heart” and comes directly from Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” which was an instant success when it appeared in December of 1843, some 160 years ago.

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The short story begins with Ebenezer Scrooge’s line “Bah! Humbug!” Later, one of the ghosts, that of Jacob Marley cries, “Mankind was my business!” The spirits that visit Scrooge on that Christmas Eve profoundly change this man, and, at the very end of the story, the narrator concludes, “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well. May that be said of us, all of us. And as Tiny Tim observed – ‘God bless us everyone.’”

This Dickens tale is a story of personal transformation, and how the ghosts that creep into our adult lives can shock us to the point of change, forgiveness and mercy.

This work of Dickens was written shortly after his visit to the United States in 1842, some believe his seeing a prison in Pittsburgh, PA may have influence Dickens’ thinking over the desperate conditions of the inmates that he had witnessed there. More directly, Dickens’s father had been in debtors prison, so the famous author knew the effects of poverty first-hand.

After the publication of the book, William Makepeace Thackeray, the novelist, said “A Christmas Carol’ was a “national benefit’ to every man and woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” A literary critic Margaret Oliphant remarked it was part of a “new gospel.” Social historian Ronald Hutton argues that this story had truly revived the Christmas holiday and linked the worship at Church to home celebrations, feasting, social reconciliation, and mostly the humane treatment of the poor.

Take a look at Mo Rocca’s report on Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” that appeared on CBS Sunday Morning.

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Dickens told his generation (and ours) that for the transformation of the heart, the very joy of Christmas, you must do the work of Christmas.

Our second prescription is about the shining star and wonder. So let’s turn to the 1944 classic film “Meet Me in Saint Louis,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, songs and lyrics by the team of Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin, and, of course, starring Judy Garland.

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You will recall the plot revolves around the father, played by Leon Ames, told his family they were to move to New York City, much to the dislike of his daughter who had designs on “the boy next door.”

It’s Christmas Eve, Judy’s in a funk, and sings to her sister, played by the young Margaret O’Brien. Here are the familiar words to the song,

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight.”

It’s the second line, that’s worth noting,

“Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow. From now on will have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now!

It became a very popular song at the time of World War II, with so many young service men and women, their families and loved ones just hoping to see the end of the war with all its personal turmoil.

However, when the producers at Capitol Records asked the young Frank Sinatra to record the song, he found it simply too depressing. So much so he insisted that the Ralph Blaine, the lyricist, write a new and more uplifting version.

In fact, at one point, the lyrics went something like, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may be living in the past.”

So the writers acceded to Sinatra’s request, and came up with the words for the standard that we know today,

“Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shinning star upon the highest bough. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now!”

Hang a shinning star on the highest bough. It’s the star and wonder that make for Christmas, just the right sentiment to dispel the dark winters of our lives.

The kind of wonder we see in our children, and their heightened expectations as high as the star on the Christmas tree.

Here’s my last prescription or “pick me up,” on how to awaken the Christmas spirit and bring a measure of joy into our adult lives.

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This comes by way of comedian and actor Bill Murray. It’s called “A Murray Christmas,” and, in opinion, is the best Christmas show in decades; and will be remembered as fondly as “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And that program is mighty hard to beat.

You can find “A Murray Christmas” on Netflix. It was released earlier this month, and produced and directed by Sofia Coppola.

Without giving it all away, it’s a tonic for adults who have the “Christmas Blues,” and begins on that theme with Murray with his sidekick Paul Shaffer at the piano.

Bill Murray is in New York City and getting ready for his nightclub act at the Hotel Carlyle. A snowstorm has shut the city down, and no one is in the clubroom aside from stranded hotel guests and the staff of waiters and cook. Michael Cera, playing Murray’s mock talent agent, tells him, “This show of yours is a Christmas Mess!” Well, this is not exactly high humor, and Murray knows that.

Here Murray is himself, that non-celebrity attempting to remain the person he is, in spite of an entourage of producers, promoters and talent agents. They are all telling him what to do, and having little effect on him.

Years ago in an interview, Bill Murray admitted “I want to be consistently here, really alive, and not distracted, not changing those channels that are always with you.

These are Bill Murray’s temptations on Christmas Eve, and into this one-hour TV special appear an A-list of highly talented performers including Chris Rock, George Clooney, Molly Cyrus, and the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.

Well, this is a Christmas special, the way we do Christmas, after all. And as an alert, there is some adult language.

By the conclusion, Murray awakens to a Christmas morning, like old Ebenezer himself, ready to see the sun come up on another day, with enough hope to provide an adult Christmas joy, with all of its wonder and the potential to carry on, and looking out from his hotel window to the Manhattan skyline, Murray gives a tiny-nod to transformation.

Take a look at the preview below. “A Murray Christmas” even contains a funny sight gag about Pope Francis.

“So the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost. To heal the broken.To feed the hungry. To release the prisoner. To rebuild the nations. To bring peace among all peoples. To make music in the heart.”

…from a poem “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJP3db3R014

 

 

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