Preaching on Christmas Eve frustrates me. I never know how to reach the exhausted, “perfect mother” struggling to bring her newborn baby to Mass because her in-laws insist. The tired father drenched with worry over paying for the family’s gifts strains to hear the evening Gospel. The single relatives back from college often feel most alone on Christmas Eve. The aging parents grieve the loss of Christmas’ past and the recent death of their only daughter. Some people scurry into the church building at the last minute feeling their place is only on the margins of the community anyway.
Christmas evokes mostly tears of loss for me as I look behind people’s smiles and sugar-induced enthusiasm. Behind the red scarves and new neckties lies the reality of people often forcing their way into happiness and love. On Christmas Eve real life comes to the surface when we least expect. I uncovered this authentic life several years ago when I tried a different approach to preaching during the holy Eve of Christmas.
Before Mass, I wrapped three items as gifts to be opened during the homily. I carried the three gifts in a colorful shopping bag and explained I had just received these gifts and wanted to open them at Mass on Christmas Eve. I ripped open the first gift with wide-eyed enthusiasm. My childlike approach revealed a new teddy bear. I reminisced about our sacred memories as children and the holy bonds of family. I spoke softly that Christmas also conjures up memories of grief, loss and unhappiness with many people we love. The grace of Christmas heals the past and makes room for Christ to be born even in our brokenness and sadness.
The second gift revealed a bag of candy. I preached the sweetness of God’s covenant of love even in times of war and uncertainty. After I spoke about each of these first two gifts, I gave each gift to a different stranger sitting in the pews. What you receive as a gift, give as a gift.
I tore off the wrapping paper from the third gift which revealed a pair of nylon socks. The assembly laughed as my face fell and I muttered about getting such an ordinary gift. I told the assembly that the Incarnation demands a lot of work on our part. I explained that Christ was born on earth to reveal the divine and human dignity of all people. I held up the dark socks and begged them to serve people who long for such dignity. The socks called people to action to serve others who go without adequate clothing, food, shelter, purpose and relationships. Walking in the footsteps of the Crucified demands a life commitment for all believers. I handed the pair of black dress socks to a stranger, a stocky, older man sitting at the end of a crowded pew. His rugged features, deep wrinkles and sparkling eyes revealed a man who had obviously made his living working with his hands with diligence and care.
The Advent Gospels prepare us for this holy night. Our hearts cannot weary while we wait for the face of Christ. Anxieties must not catch us by surprise like a trap. Great signs and wonders will tell the story of redemption. After Mass I introduced myself to the working class, kindly man and his wife. She had suddenly begun to feel ill after everyone had left the church. The three of us sat in the pew for a few minutes until her heart felt better and she felt strong enough to leave.
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy in waiting for the Lord. I was seeing before me a woman making crooked ways straight, waiting for Christ’s promise to be fulfilled. I saw in her eyes the readiness to see the salvation of God. Her heart was preparing to be birthed into eternal Light. I felt drawn to this couple. I knew I had given this man the socks for a reason. I could already feel in our first encounter that our relationship was only just beginning.
A few days later I received a phone call from the gentleman who received the socks. His wife was very ill and in the hospital. I raced over to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit to find her entire family at her bedside. She looked up at me and whispered to her husband, “It’s the sock-priest.” A few days later she died in her sleep.
At her funeral, her husband walked into the church to greet me. He pulled up his pant legs and told me that he was wearing his new socks for his wife’s funeral. We hugged each other and we both wept in our newborn friendship. I heard the Prophet John’s words rattling in my heart. If you have extra socks, give them away. Stop hoarding possessions and give them freely to others. I felt deep within my soul the reason for the giving. His grief was now being aided with the parish’s presence. The socks had now become the instrument of healing. He would always remember and grieve over the Christmas his wife died. He would also remember the Christmas Eve the parish reached out to both of them.
Every Christmas and every Easter that followed, the elderly widower wore his black dress socks to Mass. After Mass he made a point of stopping me in the lobby, shaking my hand with one hand and pulling up his pant leg with the other. He greeted me with gratitude and with tears. I looked forward to those holy greetings each year, where kindness and peace embraced. The holy greeting was a reminder for me that God is still coming to earth to save us from ourselves.
I preach now on Christmas Eve with even greater sensitivity to peoples’ stories. I realize the sock exchange with a kind-hearted stranger will never be duplicated. So I strive to break through the cultural wrappings that hide the season’s love. I reach out to tired parents, the bickering relatives, the ill single man or the couple drowning in debt. Now I wait for the gift God gives me, this authentic life, in the apprehensive stranger with cold feet sitting at the end of the crowded pew.