December 28, 2018
One Christmas tradition that I have always enjoyed is singing Christmas carols at holiday parties. Sometimes, too, you encounter it in unusual or surprising places, like airports or shopping malls. A couple of days ago I stopped into Hy-Vee to get some final items for a Christmas Eve dinner at the rectory and there was a group of carolers outside singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” It seems to be one of the few places left where it is considered acceptable to express our Christian faith in the public square.
Last week I was moving most of my things to St. Paul, Minnesota. But I made it back in time to attend the annual Christmas party with the Archbishop and seminarians on Friday evening. Fr. Roza’s office, of course, helped plan the event. It’s always a nice evening––gathering with the seminarians and their families, members of the West Omaha Serra Club, brother priests, and those young men who are considering a priestly vocation. It’s an inspiring night. One tradition at this annual gathering is for the seminarians to lead everyone in singing Christmas carols after dinner. Again, it is something fun and easy and inspiring—all can participate in since we know the hymns so well.
The men began with probably my favorite carol, “Oh, Holy Night.” And perhaps it was because I had the text right in front of me on the song sheets, but I was particularly struck by a line that perhaps before I had just moved quickly by when singing from memory. But last week it just kind of jumped out at me:
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Those few poetic lines really sum up the heart of the Christmas mystery and its place in salvation history.
From the nearly beginning of creation––since the fall of Adam and Eve—mankind, the world, has been laboring in error and in sin, yet “pining” for more. That word, “pining,” means a long and painful suffering, a yearning that is deep and difficult. It comes from the same Latin root word as “punishment” or “torment.”
And so for thousands and thousands of years, for generations upon generations, mankind has been laboring in torment, living in sin and alienation and separation from God and each other—pining for relief, for change.
And then, on Christmas morning, some 2000 years ago, the Son of God took on flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary––in the words of the hymn, “’Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” It continues: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” With the advent, the coming, of God as man, everything has changed; all is made new; sin and error are replaced with grace, mercy and peace.
Now, the invitation—maybe an even a better word is “challenge”—for us today, my friends, is to accept this grace, this new life that is being offered. God always respects our freedom. So His coming as man isn’t meant to change us in such a way as to remove our freedom. Rather, it invites us to respond to his offer of love with our own response of love. But love is always exchanged in freedom. And it is in this communion of love that we can experience the freedom from sin and error that the human heart has been pining for since the beginning.
At this same seminarian Christmas party, a brother priest asked me what I will miss most about the Newman Center. It’s a good question because there so much to love, and therefore so much to miss: offering Mass in this beautiful oratory, living with Fr. Roza and Fr. Anderson, an amazing staff, seeing God at work daily in the lives of our students.
But what it all comes down to, of course, is people– relationships. The oratory and building are beautiful, but what makes it special is how relationships with God and with one another are fostered and nourished within it. JPII Newman is not first and foremost a building; it is a community of faith, a parish for college students and young adults. So what I will miss most are the beautiful souls who gather here to seek friendship with God and each other.
And that is really, in the end, what Christmas is all about—a release from the bondage of error and sin that disrupts our relationship with God and each other, and the opening up of a new way forward, the invitation to friendship, to a communion of love that satisfies the deepest longing, the pining, of the human heart.
Today, my friends, on this Christmas morning let us accept that gracious invitation of our Savior to be his friend. No matter our past mistakes or failures, no matter where we struggle today, let us surrender all of that to our kind and gracious Savior, and the experience now the fullness of his grace, mercy, and peace.