Recently TripAdvisor released the top 25 destination spots in the United States for 2015. Among the list are New York City, Boston, Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas, Seattle, among others. Sadly Gillette, WY did not make the list of vacation spots in America. 6 years ago I traveled to one of these places, Orlando, Florida to attend the national FOCUS Conference. FOCUS is the Fellowship of Catholic University Students and that year they held their national convention in Orlando that year. This was before I was in seminary and I was still at the South Dakota School of Mines/Technology in Rapid City and very active in the Newman Center, so a group of us traveled to Orlando Florida for the FOCUS convention. While at the conference, it was pointed out to me the awesome wonder of the city itself. And 6 years later Orlando continues to impress. Orlando had over 60 million people visit the city last year alone, which places Orlando as the most visited city in the nation. Now it’s important to look at the reasons why Orlando is such a wonder of a city. If you take a moment to think about it, what was Orlando before Disneyworld and the Harry Potter theme parks and the upcoming Star Wars theme park? Orlando was a swamp. It was a cesspool of diseases including malaria and probably smelled pretty terrible. Nobody would ever want to visit a place like that. But what happened? People changed it into an impressive city worthy of over 60 million visitors last year. Orlando was transformed from a cesspool of disease into the most visited city in the nation in 2014. Another city on the list, Las Vegas, Nevada, has a similar story. Today Las Vegas is the 4th top destination spot in the nation, but before Las Vegas became the notable city it is today, Las Vegas was a desert where nobody would ever want to go to visit. Las Vegas was also transformed by the people who built it from a desert, devoid of life, into a huge city full of life that people want to go visit. If these remarkable transformations of cities happen through the work and dedication of simple people, how much more so can God, who is our heavenly Father and is all-good and all-powerful, do for us gathered here tonight?
Tonight, we gather to celebrate perhaps my favorite holiday of all. We gather to celebrate Christmas! We celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, which we just heard proclaimed from the Gospel of Luke. We celebrate the coming of God’s infinite mercy to each and every person throughout all of history, by being born in the humblest of conditions. We celebrate tonight the coming of God as man so that man can become children of God and gain eternal life. Now often we see the nativity scene depicted on Christmas cards and other paintings as a quaint and peaceful scene. In fact we have this very picturesque scene right here in the sanctuary at St. Matthew’s. We see Joseph and Mary standing and kneeling next to baby Jesus, who is laid ever so gently in a picture-perfect manger. The Star of Bethlehem shines brightly and the shepherds are gathered to adore the Christ child. The angel hovers over the scene and the Magi are approaching with gifts. Everything is picture perfect, it’s, as they say, a Kodak moment. In fact it is almost so perfect you would almost wonder why Joseph and Mary even tried to find a room at the Inn when there was this beautiful stable that they found to stay in. Let us pause for just a moment to try to imagine what the reality was actually like for Joseph and Mary. The reality of this scene was probably vastly different. Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a roughly 100 mile trip, because of the census that Caesar Augustus mandated they participate in. This was no easy trip for Joseph and Mary. It would have taken 8-10 days of long walking to reach Bethlehem, all while Mary was pregnant! They would have been exhausted when they reached Bethlehem, only to find there was no room for them at the Inn and had to settle on the only shelter they could find, a smelly and messy stable full of livestock. The smell must have been horrible. For those of you who live on ranches, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’ve been in barns with livestock and they don’t smell like flowers, unfortunately. Mary then gives birth to her Son, Jesus, and the only place to lay him on is a manger, which is not a crib, but it is a feeding trough for those same smelly livestock! Jesus’ bed was a feeding trough for animals! Then the shepherds come, who also haven’t bathed and probably smelled pretty terrible as well, all to adore Jesus as he lays there with Joseph and Mary standing over him.
This is not quite the same picture that the Christmas cards portray is it? Even so, the dirtiness and messiness of Jesus’ actual birth is far more beautiful than any of the picturesque scenes could ever be. God did not do this on accident. God chose to be born in this way to show that his Son, Jesus, was born into the utter messiness of human life in a very real and visible way. It was in this way God chose to bring salvation to all mankind. As humans we need to visually see and touch to understand the unfathomable mysteries of God and God knows this so He showed us this truth by being born in a stable of all places! Jesus was not born at the Inn, he was not born in a palace, but he was born in a stable and laid in a manger, which fittingly foreshadows how Jesus will become the Eucharist for all of us to feed on. Jesus was born into the messiness of humanity, all for the sake of our salvation. God entered the messiness of human history in this way to transform the messiness of humanity into something utterly beautiful through our salvation. In a real way, the physical transformation of Orlando, Florida or Las Vegas, Nevada, pales immensely in comparison to the transformation God wrought in humanity by becoming Man through the Incarnation, the very mystery we celebrate tonight! It is only because Jesus was born of Mary this night that He will go on to his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, taking on the consequences of sin for all of humanity so we don’t have to, even though we deserve it and Jesus doesn’t. Jesus came to give us eternal life and this He does, beginning tonight with his birth into human history! It is only through his birth and subsequent death that Jesus opens the way to salvation for all of us and brings us to eternal life. And Jesus does it by being born in the lowest of places, in a smelly, disgusting stable to show us that He can transform even the ugliest of places into the most beautiful of places. This is a far more personal reality that many of us think, it affects all of humanity, of course, but that also means it affects each and every one of us individually.
How many of us tonight feel like Orlando or Las Vegas before their transformations? Perhaps you feel like your life is like that swamp. You may feel like your life is a cesspool of sin, disease, and pain and that nobody wants to be with you there, you don’t even want to be there yourself but you have no choice. You feel all alone. Or perhaps you feel utterly dry, like a desert. God feels absent and you don’t know where to go to find life and purpose. You feel like your heart is an absolute mess and not even God would want to be there with you. Maybe you feel like you’re walking in darkness or in a land of gloom with no way to see where to go. If you find yourself in that position tonight, or have felt yourself in that position, or will find yourself in that position, the good news is that God has not abandoned you in your mess. Rather, God is even more so present in the mess of your life, even if you can’t see Him. Just as God Himself was born in the messiest of places, the stable and lain in a manger, God also desires to be born into the messiness of our hearts and transform them into places of divine beauty. We know that He does this because He already did it, through his birth and death on the cross for our salvation. But more than that, because of the Holy Spirit God desires to be born in each of our hearts every day and work the same miracle in each of our lives, we need only to let Him in. And this is cause for rejoicing this night! Isaiah rightly points this out to us in the first reading tonight when he says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing…for a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:1-2, 5). God brings us great rejoicing this night because He is the light that shines in our darkness, He is the one who enters the messiness of human history to redeem it, He is the one who enters the messiness of our hearts to redeem us each individually.
My friends, this is a truth to rejoice in greatly tonight! Tonight we celebrate the Mercy of God entering human history 2,000 years ago and entering each of our lives today in a very real way. This Mercy is a complete and free gift to each of us. We all know the punishment we deserve for our sins, for the many times we continue to fall away from God by sinning, in big or small ways, making our lives a mess. None of us deserves mercy and forgiveness by God because of our failings, and yet that is exactly what God offers to each and every one of us tonight and each and every day. He offers His Mercy completely free and as a gift because of His great love for us. That is the true meaning of Christmas: God’s gives the gift of Mercy to all of us by being born into human history to take all of our sins upon himself. This great mercy we have access to always, even if we feel like we are a cesspool of sin and disease or a desert devoid of life and unworthy of God’s love and mercy. We need to remember that we are worthy of God’s love and mercy, because each of us is made uniquely by God Himself and we are made for God. And so God desires to enter that exact mess in our hearts to transform it into something incredibly beautiful by His Mercy, we just need to open our hearts to His love and mercy. In this jubilee year of Mercy that Pope Francis declared, which continues to the Solemnity of Christ the King next November, I would encourage all of us to be very conscious about letting the Mercy of God be born in our own hearts. A concrete way we do this by receiving the sacraments frequently, especially the sacrament of Confession where the Mercy of God is present in the most powerful way we could ever imagine. Confession is where we experience God’s love and mercy as a completely free gift that transforms our hearts from something messy to something full of beauty and goodness and receive the forgiveness of our sins. My friends, never underestimate the gift of the sacrament of Confession and its power to transform our hearts and lead us to become saints. Remember, a saint is a sinner who never gave up. God desires to transform each and every one of us with His Mercy, we need only to let Him do that in our lives this Christmas.
So if you’re looking for a super last minute Christmas gift this year, I have one for you. Give a present to Jesus, the Savior of mankind, by allowing Him to enter the messiness of your own heart to transform it with His Mercy. Allow God to transform the messiness of your human heart into the beauty of His love and mercy.
From all of us here at St. Matthew’s Parish we wish you a blessed Christmas!