“The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.” (Zephaniah 3:15)
The following is the true story of something that actually happened during my homily this morning. Almost a homily within a homily:
Yesterday morning, our Emmaus brothers and sisters went out to deliver Christmas trees and toys to poor families in our area. They chose the families, but I sent them to a particular family that really needed our help. Earlier this month, I sadly had to officiate the funeral Mass of a 12-day-old baby. No matter how long you are a priest, these are never easy. I sat down with the mother half an hour before the funeral started to talk. I started noticing that her and her family had never been to church before. We talked about the loss of her baby. She had two other daughters and a son who were not taking it well as one can imagine. As I started to think of her other children, I asked her if she had gotten them gifts for Christmas, but she said no and that she hadn’t even put up a Christmas tree. I told her not to worry because the Church would take care of it as I prayed that our Emmaus brothers had one more tree on their list left to give which they did. But as I talked to this mother, my mind kept wondering how she got here. She wasn’t baptized. Her children weren’t baptized. She kept asking me how to pray during this time of crisis and if she was allowed to come to our church on Sundays. “Of course you can! Anytime! But I have to ask you: who told you come here today to offer this Mass for your baby?” She responded without hesitation: “There was this woman in the hospital with me while I was recovering, and when she found out that I lost my baby she told me: `You have to go to Immaculate to give her a Mass.’” Imagine that! One of our parishioners, from her hospital bed!, was able to send this family to our parish and in turn allowed us to give them a proper Christmas…
(It was at this point of my telling of this story during my homily that I noticed three people walking towards me down the center aisle which is usually blocked off by the ushers. I looked up and it was this mother I had been talking about with her two daughters! I froze! I looked up, smiled, and said to the mother, “I was just talking about you!” I open up my arms to give her and her daughters a hug. My congregation and I were speechless. This wasn’t planned. This wasn’t scripted. Right at the climax of the story she just happened to walk into the church. As I embraced her family, the congregation erupted in applause out of sheer delight or maybe just astonishment of what had just taken place or maybe to welcome this family to their new home. When they sat down so I could proceed with my homily, for the first time in all my years of preaching, I was speechless. I turned around and looked up to the crucifix and turned back to the people and told them: “You know that line in the movie Analyze This when Robert DeNiro turns to Billy Crystal and points to him and tells him: `You! You are very good! You are! You’re good!” And so I turned to the crucifix and uttered the same lines to our Lord. How else could I react to what had just happened. So I gathered myself and fumbled my way to the finish line with the rest of the homily I had prepared...)
Yea, I don’t know what to say after that entrance except that they are here because one of you was like John the Baptist and brought someone closer to Christ by inviting them to our church, and they did it from their hospital bed no less. We are always, at every moment, called to invite others to partake in our Savior’s joy. And this is what this Sunday is all about because today is Gaudate Sunday, the Sunday of Joy! We are called to rejoice because Christmas is almost here. And boy are we rejoicing this morning with what just happened! A sister and her family have come home! Now we must go and invite others to come home as well. There is much joy to spread and we want everyone home.
Just the other day, I was home listening to Christmas music and Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” started playing. Every year on the night before Christmas Eve, David Letterman would have Darlene Love on his show to sing this song. I would stay up to watch it year after year as my pump up song for the following two days. Each year on the show, they would add more singers, more instruments and Darlene Love would sing it with more gusto, until they did it last year for the final time and really brought the house down. There’s a verse in the middle of that song that has been stuck in my head for the last few days which goes: “They’re singing Deck the Halls, but it’s not like Christmas at all, because I remember when you were here, and all the fun we had last year.” It’s as if we’re about to have this big party and we don’t want anyone to miss out on the joy. Please come home has to be our mantra these last few weeks of Advent.
(As I uttered that last phrase of the homily, I paused and turned to the congregation and said, “I feel like everything I said after this sister walked in with her family was just nonsense. Not that it didn’t need to be said, but I probably should have just stayed quiet and sat down after she walked in when all of us saw just how great our God is. Yet this sister is a living example for all of us that we need to come home to God this Christmas.)
One last thing: After Mass, I think more people may have approached this mother and her family than said hello to me outside. I totally didn’t mind. Today I saw the compassion of the people of God as they kept asking me if this family needed anything else this Christmas. When I finally made my way to the mother after my parishioners welcomed her, the first thing she said to me was “Sorry I was late.” I started laughing because God whisked her through those church doors at the perfect time. A true Advent miracle! The Lord has done great things for us and we are indeed filled with joy!