Our waiting and yearning are almost at an end. Christmas, that glorious season when we celebrate the moment God stepped into time and took on flesh to save us, is nearly here.
At most parishes, that means packed churches on Christmas Eve and the usual grumbling about “Christmas and Easter Catholics” hogging all the good seats.
Resentment certainly has a way of stealing joy, doesn’t it?
Instead, let’s look at this happy predicament with new eyes: That stranger taking our preferred pew is in fact someone’s son or daughter. The parents of that stranger may have spent years — decades even — praying for their precious adult child to return to the Church.
Have you ever spoken to a mom or dad who has had their prayers answered after long-held anxiety over the spiritual welfare of their child? Tears of joy well up in their eyes as they thank the Good Shepherd who unceasingly searches out the lost sheep and carries them home.
“We have dreamed of this moment forever and it’s finally here! Our prayers have been answered!”
Try to imagine that kind of joy. Amazing, isn’t it? Those sorts of dramas are unfolding all around us at Christmas.
It’s also likely there will be strangers among us who suddenly, bravely, recognized an emptiness deep within and have decided to give church a try. How well do we welcome these hurting souls in our midst? Do we smile and warmly greet or acknowledge our pew mates?
Is the elderly man sitting beside you alone for the first time this year after losing his beloved wife? Is the middle-aged woman behind you blinking back tears as Mass gets underway because her husband left her for a younger woman?
Really, any or all or none of those scenarios might be playing out at our parish on Christmas Eve or any other day. When St. Teresa of Calcutta cradled the dying poor and forgotten, she saw them with compassion. “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise,” she once remarked. The same goes for the new faces at our parishes this Christmas.
St. Teresa of Calcutta is also famous for this little gem: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Really, who are we to complain about crowded churches? Something tells me teeming sanctuaries are likely a remedy to the cultural chaos around us. In that respect, it’s time to shift our thinking from “how can the Church serve me?” to “how can I serve the Lord and bring more people into relationship with Him?”
That kind of missionary zeal for souls is not the strict purview of clergy and religious but a calling for each and every baptized person. It is Christ who is the true Remedy for a world wounded and crushed by sin. And it is we who are entrusted with the mission of bringing His love, peace and joy into the lives of those we encounter.
At Christmas, we sing of peace on Earth and a fragile Child who came into this world in poverty and simplicity, a Child who asks us to open our hearts and welcome our brothers and sisters, sharing with them the peace we have found in surrendering ourselves to God.
If the Christmas Eve crowds are too much for you, consider attending Mass on Christmas day. Those Masses are generally less full, though The Soulful Catholic dreams of a day when every Mass will be standing room only and millions more men, women and children will seek to know and follow the King of Kings.
On December 24, rather than sighs and complaints, let us cry out to God in gratitude for His great mercy in sending us His Son. And let’s welcome the stranger among us.