Yes indeed, it’s for sure the most wonderful time of the year: Tonight we are able to celebrate Christmas and rejoice knowing that it is through Christ’s birth that we are able to share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.
What a wonderful delight it is to be able to worship in this historic Cathedral. Some of us tonight are able to share our joy with family and friends, while others reach for the memories of those who have parted from our midst and now know the strength of God’s presence and rejoice in his eternal glory.
This Christmas celebration should not take us by surprise, considering that the Church has been reminding us during the four weeks of Advent to prepare ourselves to receive this gift of God, which is Baby Jesus.
But in addition, our secular society has been eagerly reminding us to get into our Christmas spirit from as far back as Halloween. By Thanksgiving all the stores and many of our streets were full of decorations, and the elevators were playing Christmas music, to make sure that we realized that, “it’s beginning to look like Christmas,” and that it was time to get our credit cards out.
Now, not everybody reacts to Christmas the same way. For me it has not arrived until I hear the Salvation Army bells ringing in front of Macy’s and Publix. Those bells seem to work for me, as the bell did for Pavlov’s dog that began to salivate as soon as he heard the bell ringing.
I’ll make a confession to you; I have not always been a faithful Episcopalian. I discovered during my college days in Kentucky that I could be bought just with the offer of a Christmas job. It all began before Christmas 1961 when I was enticed to get a job during my Christmas vacation as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. Some of my college friends convinced me to join them and apply for a job during Christmas to raise money ringing a bell for the Salvation Army. Lo and behold, we got the job and four of my friends crowded with me in my 1950 Ford, and with lots of prayer and teenage immaturity we drove from Kentucky to New York City, where the Salvation Army headquarters is located.
From there we were assigned in groups of two to different parts of the city. I ended up assigned, together with my friend Hyman, to ring our bells in front of the Sears store in the Bronx by the Grand Concourse. I must say that it was a good deal for the time because not only did we get paid the minimum wage, but we also got free housing at the Salvation Army alcoholic rehab center–one of the many programs that they successfully run to help those in need. We were given a bed and slept in a big hall with the people being treated for their addiction. It wasn’t too bad—we were young, and besides giving us a place to sleep we were fed every morning a hearty free breakfast.
We worked non-stop ringing our bells from the time that the stores opened until they closed. Our outfit was a long black winter coat and one of those Salvation Army hats. I don’t want to brag but I really looked very handsome and official.
From then on every year during my college days my friends and I spent our Christmas vacation ringing bells and freezing in those cold New York winters.
Now don’t think that we were the only ones ringing bells in front of the stores. Next to us we always found the dreadful competition: It was the Santa Claus ringing bells for the Volunteers of America. I must confess that I did very well in my job. One of the reasons was that the Santa Claus that had been assigned to my spot was drunk most of the time. He asked me every day to take care of his pot while he went to the bar. It was easy pickings as I directed the passersby to put their money in my pot.
Today when I see one of those Salvation Army red pots and hear the bells ringing I just cannot resist giving my contribution. It not only brings back old memories, but I know that the money will be used for a good cause.
Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. I think that there are two reasons that make Christmas unique: magic and miracle.
Yes, magic and miracle make Christmas so extraordinarily different from all the other holidays of the year. During Christmas time, like magic, people are transformed and our behavior tends to change for the good.
I have found that regardless of all the pressures that we encounter during this time there seems to be something that takes place within us, and that magical something makes us willing to reach out to others.
Christmas has such a positive magic in itself that is able to transform us. It becomes like a light in the middle of the darkness that allows us to see the goodness in others that otherwise we are unable to see in the shadows of our daily life.
Christmas may be a time of pressure but also a time that brings joy to our busy burdened life.
Talking about pressures let me share with you the quandary that I find myself every year around this time. As a married man I face double jeopardy because my wedding anniversary is December 22, just three days before Christmas. I didn’t realize the mistake I was making by getting married on that day. Are you aware of how hard it is for a man to make up his mind on what to buy his wife, not one but two gifts, one after the other? And the only help I get is: “Honey, whatever you get me is fine with me.” Actually I am hoping that Walgreen’s will be open tomorrow morning because if not I am in big trouble.
But regardless of all the pressure we tend to face, I won’t change Christmas for anything else. The magic that takes place makes it worthwhile. Christmas brings that extra special feeling that life is precious and that we are bound to each other in our humanity as brothers and sisters.
One of the most beautiful Christmas stories I have heard is a true story that took place in the battlefield of France during the First World War. It has to do with an event that happened to German, French and Scottish soldiers that were fighting in opposite trenches during the war to end all wars.
On Christmas Eve 1914, the Allied troops began to see candlelight coming from the German trenches. Thinking that they were going to be attacked they got ready, but then instead of canons or bullets, they began to hear that famous Austrian Christmas carol Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” being sung by the German troops. The French and Scottish troops instead of firing began to sing French and Scottish Christmas hymns. It was then when an informal, unauthorized truce began to take place and the troops from both sides began to fraternize with each other exchanging gifts, playing soccer and showing pictures of their families to each other. The soldiers and the officers of the opposing armies peacefully met in a no-man’s land to share a precious pause in the carnage of war. This extraordinary moment in the middle of the war was captured in the film Joyeux Noel, a 2005 movie directed by Christian Canon. It allows you to see that magic of Christmas that took over the troops.
But in addition, I mentioned that a miracle is also involved that makes Christmas so special. That miracle comes as soon as we grasp the wonderful realization that God so loved the world–that God so loved you and me–that he sent his only son so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but have eternal life.
It is at the moment that Mary receives the message from the Archangel Gabriel and surrenders to God’s will for her life that the miracle of Christmas begins to take place.
It is the miracle of God’s love for us that touches our innermost being. It is then that we are called to know God in Jesus Christ, and believe in him as someone we know intimately, whose promise is worthy of our trust, as well as our personal investment and commitment.
The miracle of Christmas lies in our believing that the Savior of the world has been born in Bethlehem, born of the Virgin Mary, and that Mary’s son, Jesus, is indeed Emmanuel, “God with us.”
This Christmas let that magic touch you, and also let the miracle of Christmas transform you through believing that God cares for you, and that God cares for your loved ones, both those whom you can see and those who are now gone.
Let the miracle of God incarnate in our midst as a tender baby allow us to share that eternal light that will help transform this world, to bring peace on earth and goodwill to every man and woman of this planet.
My prayer for you this Christmas Eve is that God may grant you
The light of Christmas, which is faith,
The warmth of Christmas, which is love,
The radiance of Christmas, which is purity,
The righteousness of Christmas, which is justice,
The belief in Christmas, which is peace,
And the all of Christmas, which is Christ.
Yes, indeed Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year!
Merry Christmas to all!