Keeping Christmas joy alive in our preaching—even amid war, violence and poverty
The anticipated joy of Christmas unfolds against a backdrop of pain and violence this year. The present war in Israel and Palestine dominates the media and captures global attention, while war continues in Ukraine and, at least, 100 other territories worldwide. It feels like an overwhelming challenge to preach about the hope, joy and peace of Christmas when we seem besieged by despair. And yet, throughout human history, war, violence and poverty have been tragic constants.
“I think one of the most important things in these extremely troubled times is that we do have the lights, both metaphorically and physically,” says Barbara Reid, O.P. “Our most important gift and our most important approach, not only to the advent and Christmas season, but to our lives overall, is never to let hope dim.”
On the Christmas episode of “Preach,” Sister Barbara Reid, President of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies at the C.T.U, preaches on the readings for Christmas Mass during the Day. Barbara, a leading scholar in feminist interpretation and the general editor of Wisdom Commentary—a new 58-volume feminist commentary on the Bible—joins host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., to reflect on how she maintains Christmas joy in her preaching without shying away from the grim realities of the world.
“One of the most important preparations for a preacher is to be reading the scriptures in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand,” says Barbara, quoting an old adage. However, she acknowledges the changing media landscape and suggests, “Maybe today we need to say, have your tablet in the other hand—we’re not always reading paper newspapers anymore.” Ricardo quickly interjects: “Have your cell phone with notifications on!”
[Do you have a preacher to recommend for Preach? Let us know here. ]
In conversation with Ricardo after the homily, Barbara urges preachers to read Scripture commentaries from “perspectives that are postcolonial, Latino/a, Black Catholic, Asian, and Asian American,” says Barbara. “I find it very helpful to pay attention to those kinds of resources which help me see from a perspective other than my own and help keep a more global lens in the preaching and in my understanding of the text.”
“It was one of the most liberating things for me to discover that I could see God as ‘Mother,’” says Ricardo, who was born an only child to a single mother. “Speaking about God as ‘Father’ didn’t really connect with me,” Ricardo admits. “This idea of being at the breast of God is much more comforting and a much more real image for me.”
Our most important gift—not only to the advent and Christmas season but to our lives overall—is never to let hope dim.
Scripture Readings for Christmas Mass During the Day
First Reading: Is 52:7-10
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6
Second Reading: Heb 1:1-6
Gospel: Jn 1:1-18
You can find the full text of the readings here.
Homily for Christmas Mass During the Day, by Barbara Reid, O.P.
Some people love to camp outdoors, including in the dead of winter. My brother-in-law is one. He and his buddies love to commune with nature, cook their food over an open fire, and sleep out under the stars. Me, I’m happy to make brief forays outdoors for a hike in the winter, but at night, I prefer the comforts of home over a lumpy sleeping bag on the hard earth. While my brother-in-law and his buddies do this by choice for one weekend a year, there are people in our city who are camping out not by choice. It is a shock to see people living in makeshift shelters in abandoned schools, church basements, police stations, and the hotel next door to me, as Chicago struggles to house the more than 26,000 migrants and refugees who arrived in our city, and in our neighborhood this year.
When I heard that the city had plans to erect several tent cities, I could only think of how dreadful tenting in winter would be for people accustomed to equatorial climates. Last week some of the people who live next door to me were wearing flip flops and shorts on a day when the high was only 40 degrees. What is the Incarnate One who tents among us asking of us in this moment?
In today’s gospel today, the central verse of the prologue of John exultantly proclaims that God likes to camp with us (the Greek verb eskēnosen literally means “pitched his tent”). This is not a new message. During the wilderness wandering, as the Israelites crossed from bondage in Egypt to the promised land, they experienced God’s presence in the tent of meeting (Exod 25:8; Num 35:34). Israel’s God did not remain stationary in a temple, but rather traveled with the people throughout their desert sojourn.
Israel’s God did not remain stationary in a temple, but rather traveled with the people throughout their desert sojourn.
This experience of God-with-us takes on an extraordinary new dimension when the Holy One tents with us in human flesh, in the person of Jesus, journeying with us in the most intimate way possible.
The first part of today’s gospel describes a cozy at-homeness that existed from the beginning between Theos (God) and the Logos (Word). The two share a oneness and together take delight in giving birth to all that came to be. Their intimacy is fruitful; their love does not stay at home in a closed circle but gives birth to all that lives. The supreme act of self-emptying love is when God pours forth divine love in the tent of human skin.
Just as leaving a sturdy home to camp in a canvas tent makes one vulnerable to the elements and to danger, so does Jesus’ donning of human flesh. John’s prologue already points toward his rejection and execution. There would be those who would not recognize the Creator’s love masked in human flesh. They miss the truth that the divine impulse is to become one with the most fragile of humanity. Jesus seeks out and identifies with those who camp on the edge of poverty.
This experience of God-with-us takes on an extraordinary new dimension when the Holy One tents with us in human flesh
Extraordinary things can happen when camping in the wilderness. Israel found that when God’s tent was pitched with them in the desert, it was both a time of trial and of honeymoon. Stripped of any of the ordinary ways in which they might provide for themselves, they had to rely on their divine Provider even for their physical existence, depending on manna from heaven and water from rock. In the new divine act of “grace on top of grace” (John 1:16), Jesus himself becomes Bread for a hungry people and quenches all thirst.The amazing thing is that, although the Logos has gone camping with humankind, he has not left the home he has with Theos (God). Even as he dwells with humanity, he is yet “at the Father’s side” (eis ton kolpon is literally,“at the breast” or “bosom” of the Father) (1:18). Here is an extraordinary image: the Son is at the “breast” of the Father— It is an image of the intimacy of a nursing mother with her child—that same intimacy that God wants to have with us, the same intimacy that is shared between Jesus and all his disciples, symbolized in the figure of the nameless Beloved Disciple, who at the Last Supper (13:23) reclines at Jesus’ side (literally, “in the bosom,” en toì kolpoì, of Jesus).
In our celebration of Christmas we not only rejoice in God tenting with us in human form but as followers of Christ we too are invited out of our comfortable abodes to pitch our tent with the most vulnerable and needy in our communities, while resting always in our one permanent home: the bosom of the Holy One.