December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Reading 1 Is 7:10-14
Responsorial Psalm Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
R. (7c and 10b) Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
Reading 2 Rom 1:1-7
Gospel Mt 1:18-24
George and Joe, twin brothers, tried to outdo each other in being mean, evil, conniving, sorry, wicked men. They cheated on their wives. They embezzled from their business partners. They foreclosed on widows and orphans. They corrupted young people. They bribed building inspectors. They never left tips for waitresses. They aggravated neighbors with frivolous law suits. They made life harder than it needs to be for everyone they met. Then Joe died.
Now George had little use for religion but he got the notion that he wanted his brother buried from a church. He went to the pastor of the Nativity Parish and said, “You know who I am? You know about my brother’s heart attack?” The Pastor replied, “Yes. Everybody in town knows the two of you.” George asked, “You willing to bury Joe from your church?” “Yes I am,” the kindly Pastor said, “Everyone deserves a decent funeral.” “I got little use for religion,” George continued, “But I’ll tell you what. When you preach Joe’s funeral, I want you to say these exact words – ‘Joe was a living saint’! If you’ll say those exact words, then I’ll hand you a check for $100,000 for your building fund; But if you don’t say those exact words – ‘Joe was a living saint’ – then I won’t give you nothing”. The preacher thought it over and agreed.
Come the day of the funeral, the Pastor entered the pulpit and said, “Friends, you all know how Joe lived. He cheated on his wife. He embezzled from his business partners. He foreclosed on widows and orphans. He corrupted young people. He bribed building inspectors. He never left tips for waitresses. He aggravated neighbors with frivolous law suits. He made life harder than it needs to be for everyone he met. We all know Joe was a mean, evil, conniving, sorry, wicked man. But, compared to his brother, Joe was a living saint.”
As we celebrate today the 90th anniversary of the first Mass of our Church of the Nativity family, have we been like the living saints that George and Joe wanted to be remembered as, or are we more like George and Joe? I spent some time looking back over our church’s history, including its early record books, which list the specifics of our founding. Did I find any folks like George and Joe among the founders? What about our current members—any Georges and Joes? Characterizing us as notorious sinners such as these would certainly be misrepresenting who we have been.
On the hand, it could be tempting, on the occasion of an anniversary, to lavish praise upon the great figures of our history, including those present now—providing a long list of virtual “living saints” that have made our parish the fine place it is. But, if I did, I would also be misrepresenting who we are—and what has always been happening here. For our Nativity Parish is not a place where living saints gather, but instead people, flawed in the fallen human condition, who need Christ to free them to become living saints—images of God in our midst. In “shorthand,” we could be called a gathering of sinners. But, instead, since this language is “loaded,” I’d rather say that, when we are at our best, we are a gathering of people who know they need God to free them from their failings and restore their lives. In summary, Nativity has always been a gathering of people who know they need a savior.
For, this is exactly who Jesus is—a savior. In today’s gospel, so appropriate as Christmas, the feast day of our Nativity Parish, arrives, the angel of the Lord tells St. Joseph exactly who this Jesus, born of Mary, is to be: “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Mary is to bear Jesus, who will save us from our sins. What does this mean? Sin keeps us from living fully—we know this. When we are angry, when we are proud, when we are jealous, or envious, or any other of the deadly sins—we are not able to live fully—they choke the life out of us. And, strangely and sadly, we cling to these deadly things, even as they cling to us.
We gather, as has each generation in this church, to hear Jesus speak to us, to receive Him in his sacraments, and to be saved and delivered from the strangulation of sin to the fullness of life in Christ. In summary, we are for now at least partly George and Joe, but we are here because we know to whom we must come to be freed and restored to life. We want to be living saints, remade in the image of Jesus, and we have come in faith to ask Jesus to do this for us. We are asking Jesus to be who the angel said he would be—we are asking him to save us from the deadly thing that is sin—and in doing this, make us more saintly.
For 90 years now, our sisters and brothers in faith have come to our Church of the Nativity Parish family and have discovered that the promise of who the angel Gabriel said Jesus would be is true. When we come here in humility and in our need and present our failings before our loving God, behold, we discover Jesus as a Savior who takes our failings away and restores us to the image of how we were created—he restored to our goodness as sons and daughters of God. This is what it means when it was promised that “he would save us from our sins.”
What is the Church of the Nativity? Earlier, I suggested it could be seen as a gathering of sinners. But, more accurately, with God’s grace, we are saints in the making.As we, a parish family, come to receive the Eucharist, see what is most characteristic, most essential to who we are: Nativity Parish is now, and has always been, a family coming to Jesus so he can make us saints. Then, at our funerals, indeed the Pastor can declare us saints—but only because Christ, our merciful savior, has made us such. To him, then, we give great thanks, that through his mercy we are saints in the making.