One of the special traditions of Christmas is to put lights in the window, a welcoming sign of Christ who is the Light of the world. In two days Christmas will be here. Whether the One who came and is to come is with us that festive day and the days that follow depends on whether we see the light in the window, the window of our hearts. We desperately need that welcoming light to guide and console us through the storms of life which seem especially heavy and diverse these days.
Some years ago there was an article in Catholic Digest about a Native American on a reservation here in South Dakota remembering when during a winter blizzard he had to go out to get more firewood. He had tied ropes from the house to the wood pile, but the wind had blown them down. On his way back he stumbled away from the house toward the open prairie and likely death. Confused for direction, he turned in circles and then saw a light. His wife had placed a kerosene lamp in the only window of the house. He recalled: ‘It was hard to see through all the snow – kind of shimmering light that seemed to be dancing. The woman hung it there for me to see in case I got lost. It saved my life, that light. All that was between me and the big dark.’
God the Father sent his Son to be a welcoming and reassuring light for us, especially in the blizzards of life when we lose our way, when we are lost. There are many blizzards in our lives, real ones – war, terror, natural disasters, sickness, loss of loved ones, and blizzards within us – doubt, guilt, sin, worry, so many. We need to find that light in our window to show us the way. It is represented by the candle and by the Christmas star. But to experience that welcoming light we first must believe that Jesus, the Son of God, did come into the world to save us.
For some, the truth of the first Christmas is nonsensical, hard to believe. Do we believe that the archangel Gabriel appeared to a young woman who was engaged to a poor carpenter and told her that she would become a mother through the power of the Holy Spirit? That it actually happened? That the child was the Son of God? That God’s son was born in a stable near the remote town of Bethlehem? Or as the Lord declared in our first reading: ‘from you Bethlehem shall come forth from me one who is to rule.’
That’s not how the media experts would have planned it. Some children were acting out the Christmas story. Joseph and Mary came to the inn, knocked, and the innkeeper said, ‘you can’t stay here. We’re full’. Little Joseph turned to Mary and said, ‘I told you to make reservations’.
There is a song that says ‘Christmas is for children; it’s for children people say.’ Many propose that Christmas is only about make-believe, about fantasies, and so the decorations and parties and sales become ends in themselves. Someone wrote,’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, everyone was on their phones.’ Iphones is not where we will see the light of Christ; it is here in Church and in each other. Christmas is for all children of God not in escapist gadgets.
As incredible as it sounds and seems, the coming of Jesus as man in Bethlehem in the way Scripture describes is true. I believe it, and that acceptance in faith has changed my life. The essence of the message from today’s Gospel and from Christmas itself is that God intervened in the world in a way we cannot explain, but out of love for us. Jesus was conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit to become the light of the world to reassure us and give us hope.
One of my favorite paintings is of a lighthouse on the coast of Maine where I have spent many retreats. It is stark in its simplicity, a welcoming and inviting light in the darkness. The story is told of an old lighthouse keeper who often sat watching the sea, the ebb and flow of the tide and the crash and splatter of the waves. He would tell stories of the sea, of ships caught in storms, threatened by hidden rocks and more, stories in which the light of the house was always the hero. ‘You see’, he said, ‘my mother always left a light in the window. It was there when I was a boy in Maine coming home from school in wintertime and the snow was blowing almost horizontal. When I was away in service, fighting overseas, she kept it burning still, like some kind of altar light to show the way back home. Later, when my wife died so sudden, and I was thinking about walking out there into the sea and being taken to wherever she might be, the memory of that light stopped me. A person needs a light in the window, something to show that he’s still expected, that someone is waiting for him. Because not being expected is about the worst thing there is, being left by yourself in the storm. There’s got to be a light somewhere or you’re lost.’
As many of you know my mother died suddenly on a Thanksgiving Day a few years ago. I was sad but grateful for her long life and the two years we spent together in Sioux Falls. She lived in Cathedral Heights, the affordable senior housing the diocese built on the campus of the Cathedral of St. Joseph. Her apartment overlooked the parking lot. So every night I was able to look over to her apartment and see that the lights were on which reassured me. The first night I looked and the window was dark shook me to the core; I felt the loss. The words of the old lighthouse keeper hit home: There’s got to be a light somewhere or you’re lost.
Jesus is that light, the light of the world, the light in my window. He is the light that tells me, and hopefully you, that we’re expected, we’re loved, we are not alone, we are not lost. Nowadays we have so much glare surrounding us in sight and sound and movement that the light of Christ can seem dim amidst all that glows. The truth is that all other lights eventually lose their power and go out. The light of Christ always burns for us even when we do not notice, ever waiting for us to see him and be reassured.
As we enjoy the fun and festivities this week, may we take a moment to focus on the truth of what we celebrate. If we forget or dismiss that God became man, come December 26 we can lose our way again in the blizzards of life. There’s got to be a light somewhere or we’re lost. Christ, the baby born in Bethlehem and the man crucified and risen, is that light. With grateful hearts may we see and welcome Him on Christmas day and all the days that follow.
A blessed Christmas to you and your family and friends.