One of the most popular images at Christmas is the Manger. In fact, most years at Christmas, I like to preach about the Manger and what it proclaims.
In the Manger we see the poverty into which Christ was born and the extent to which He goes to announce His love for every human being. Whether a person is rich or poor, the Manger declares that Christ loves each of us and will do anything to come to make His dwelling among us. There is a great similarity between Christ’s being born in a manger and the way in which He comes to us in the Eucharist in a small piece of bread. As He comes to dwell among us in poverty in the Manger, in the Eucharist Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts in a small piece of bread. Because this small host, in which Christ gives us His body, is so simple, there can be no barrier to anyone- rich or poor- receiving Him. Unless, of course, we place a barrier there by keeping away from Him.
So accustomed have we become to the idea that Jesus was born into a manger, that we might overlook two realities that I would like to emphasize this year. These important aspects are the fact that Jesus was born into a family and into a community. These two aspects are essential because they point to where and how we are also called to encounter Christ, and where we are called to make Him present.
This year, Father Thomas Rosica gave our parish its Advent Retreat. In this retreat, he pointed out one of the distinct traits of the Gospel of Matthew; the Gospel that we will read throughout the coming liturgical year. This Gospel begins with a very long genealogy of Jesus. Significant about this genealogy is the list of Jewish heroes and sinners that it contains. Many of us might not be surprised by all the heroes that this genealogy contains. When we tell our own family histories, we include all of the important and famous characters in the story. However, we tend to leave out the embarrassing parts. So why would Matthew include all the villains and sinners in Jesus’ genealogy? As Father Rosica pointed out, the reason for mentioning the sinners in the genealogy is to point out that no matter what our own family history, Jesus wants to enter into our families and redeem them. No family has a past that Jesus cannot redeem. No individual has sinned so badly that he or she cannot be saved. Jesus desires to be a part of every family and of every individual’s life.
Joseph and Mary show us how we are called to allow Christ to be a part of our families and our routines. They make Jesus a priority and order their lives so that He may be a part of their lives. This is something that I think all of us need to be reminded about. During the pandemic, many people re-ordered their lives and their priorities. As the pandemic shutdowns came to an end, most families did not return to Sunday Mass. As we celebrate this Christmas and remember how Joseph and Mary ordered their lives so that Jesus could enter into their lives, it must be said without hesitation that for Christ to be a part of our lives, we must order them so that He might enter them and be a part of them. For all Christians, Sunday Mass, or a Sunday service, is the way that we order our lives for Him to be a part of them. This year, I am so happy that Christmas falls on a Sunday because it allows me the great opportunity to re-affirm that if we want Christ to be a part of our lives and families, receiving Him in the Eucharist at Sunday Mass is how we as Catholics are called to do this.
The other reality that we sometimes overlook about Christ’s birth is that He was born into a community. The different figures who are part of Jesus’ birth story—the angels, the shepherds, the Magi, and even the inn-keeper who showed them to the manger—connect the event of His birth into a wider community. Here too, the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel sheds light on the nature of the broader community into which Jesus was born into. That history involved a story with saints and sinners. Without that broader community of the Jewish people through which God the Father prepared the way for the birth of Jesus, He could not have been born and recognized as our Savior.
Today, the Church is the community through which we are called to encounter Christ. In the community of the Church, like the genealogy that we read in Matthew’s Gospel, there are saints and sinners. Some people were hurt by the way the Church responded during the pandemic. We are all human. The history of the Church is not about the fact its members are perfect. The story of the Church is about the reality that human beings are imperfect sinners who need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior and He established the Church that we might encounter Him in the Church and through the Sacraments.
The Gospel of Matthew, which I have already mentioned is the Gospel we will be reading in the coming liturgical year, is actually called the Church’s Gospel. In it, Matthew not only speaks about Christ’s founding of the Church, but of the very important need of forgiveness as fundamental for all community and family life. It is Matthew’s Gospel that tells us that we are called to forgive seven times seven. More importantly, as we pray the “Our Father,” if we wish to be forgiven by God, we are told that we must forgive others as (or in the same way) we wish to be forgiven.
This Christmas, as we gather with family and friends, let us welcome Christ to the table by offering others the forgiveness that we wish to receive from God. This Christmas, let us also make our way back to our parish communities by letting go of any grudges that we might hold about the way in which the pandemic was handled. Throughout this difficult time, people were simply trying to navigate the best they could with the information they had. If you were hurt by the way the Church, or this parish responded during the pandemic, I would ask for your forgiveness. I would ask you not to allow these human failures to get in the way of you receiving Christ our Savior in the Eucharist each and every Sunday. It is never worth abandoning Christ and His salvation, because of what a weak human being did or said.
As we celebrate this Christmas, I invite you to think about the Holy Family and how they ordered their lives to allow Christ to be in their midst. We must order our lives to make room for Christ to be a part of them. If Sunday Mass was a part of your family routine before the pandemic, let the new year be a time to re-order your Sundays for Christ. If Sunday Mass was not a part of your routine before the pandemic, why not reflect upon what we have learned about the fragility of life throughout the pandemic, and like the Holy Family before our parish altar in the Manger this Sunday, resolve to bring your family to receive Christ in the Eucharist at Sunday Mass.
At the Manger, Mary and Joseph were surrounded by a greater community from the Church on earth and the Heavenly choir. We too, need to be part of the Church to know and experience Christ’s presence fully in our lives. Our Church today is made up of the same saints and sinners that are found in Christ’s genealogy. It is the humanity of the Church that should comfort us in the knowledge that, with Jesus, salvation is possible to all people.
As we celebrate Christmas this year, let us resolve to order our lives so that we might encounter Christ in our lives each Sunday with His community of faith—the Church Christ founded to save sinners and to come to each of us at Mass in the gift of the Eucharist.
Merry Christmas and all of God’s blessings for 2023.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor, St. Peter’s Church—Toronto, Ontario
The above text is Fr. McGourty's Christmas homily.