We all belong: Preaching to our family of believers
Several years ago I was setting up the chapel for the celebration of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I was quietly reflecting on my homily and the fact that in our urban parish community there are few families that fit a traditional model. I noticed the three people who had already arrived in the chapel to pray quietly before Mass.
A young man rolled his wheelchair near the tabernacle to pray. He was surviving many forms of mental illness and he had told me he had cancer. He was a man in his mid-twenties and already was living in a healthcare facility. He was delusional and thought he might become the pastor of the parish one day. He was also extremely alone. His family had not been a part of his life since he was a teenager.
Another man stood in the lobby of our building waiting for his son to arrive. The father was an engineer and near retirement. He attended our parish because his only son was homeless. His son usually appeared in our lobby when he thought his father was attending Mass. The father suffered from heart disease and had already survived several heart attacks. The father usually gave him a few dollars for extra food to get him through the week. The son rarely stayed for Mass.
The third gentleman knelt in the last pew. He was there trying to make sense out of his life after his recent divorce. I knew that the previous months had been very difficult for his adult children. This was his first Christmas alone and he was just getting settled in a neighborhood apartment. He was a businessman and struggled not only with his divorce but also with the consequences for his family and family business.
These three men were members of our parish because they all felt comfortable within a worshipping community that was not perfect. They helped define “family” within the parish that still serves people who live outside and those who volunteer among the weary and lost. Even though most people are considered marginalized in our community we are still a worshipping family together.
These three people become the source of inspiration all these years later as I reflect on the gospels from Advent until Epiphany. During the Advent season we are all trying to stay awake for God to break into our lives. As preachers of the season, we experience a particular sensitivity to people’s lives and experiences. Advent is not a cardboard cutout of preparations for the arrival of the Messiah. Rather, Advent evokes the messy nature of our human relationships and an even more profound awareness that our lives and dreams have not turned out they way we expected. Advent evokes severe loneliness, extenuates loss and poverty and reminds people of their hardships as we long to celebrate the miracle of God-made-flesh.
On Christmas day we hear the gospel of the Word-among-us. Jesus was born in a cave on the margins of a village. The Word from God is still struggling to become flesh in our awkward relationships, our recent divorces, our miscarriages, our ongoing struggles with Church authority and among our teens who detest being told what to do in life. This is the holy ground for preachers. The issues of our unsettled people in the pews become the place where God-is-born. Christmas becomes a workshop for those of us who preach to discover the grace that will set people free.
Preaching among any family of believers is a delicate matter during the entire Christmas season. Liturgical preaching can get lost among the multitudes of poinsettias in the sanctuary and the worry among parents if they will survive Santa Claus. The real meaning of the Word-made-flesh is often dulled dealing with guest preachers and priests or mothers trying to convince the family to go to church. Preaching should not be whimsical and pious or too theoretical. Stories within homilies should not be overly sentimental or irrelevant nor should they be only about the past. Preachers need to understand the real issues of peoples’ lives at Christmas and why people are at Mass in the first place.
People long to make sense out of their misfortunes of the past year and their separations from loved ones by miles and grudges. We want to live in God’s peace in the chaos of life. Many mothers who have lost children have a difficulty even viewing the baby in the manger. Single people are reminded during this season of family that they do not have one of their own. People who have lost jobs or simply do not have money to spend are reminded of their inadequacies during this season of plenty. No matter the community or parish, suffering and unfortunate circumstances come out of hiding during the season that our culture says is merry and bright.
The family of God sits in the pews waiting to relate to the beauty of Christ’s birth among us. We are all related through our baptism and we want to discover the way through our restless lives to the place where hope is born. Preaching uncovers for us the fact that we all belong in God’s love.
Ronald Patrick Raab, C.S.C.