The midnight mass at Christmas Eve attracts a lot of people who don’t otherwise go to mass. Most priests use the opportunity for a missionary homily, designed to explain as much as possible to the cultural Christians while still preserving the expected sentimentality and high culture earnestness they have come for. In my experience these homilies are rather boring. I also suspect they mostly go over the heads of their intended audience.
Except this year, where the priest at the midnight mass I attended did it a bit more concrete than usual. I’d like to share the gist of his homily:
Christ was born in a stable. Stables normally stink. So probably God decided to become man in a literally stinky place. This doesn’t make stinkiness any less stinky, but it also didn’t stop Christ from being born there.
As Christ came to man in general he also wants to come to everyone of us. Doing so, he will find our hearts too are a pretty stinky place. We are often selfish, resentful, cruel, ungrateful &c. This doesn’t stop Christ from wanting to be born in us. This doesn’t mean our stinkyness isn’t real. But it does mean it is not a hindrance for him wanting to be born in us. But if he is born in us he won’t remain a child forever. He will grow to instruct and lead us.
In doing this, Christ is also setting an example for us. Often we find other people stinking in the same figurative sense as ourselves. The example of Christ teaches us not to thumb our noses in disgust but to be accepting of the person, stinkiness and all, and to help them, even if the stinkiness itself is a bad thing.
In addition to being an image of each of us, the stable is also an image of all of us, i.e. of the Church. It stinks in the Church too. (This is particularly true in Germany where we are still in the kind of scandal the American Church has mostly worked through.) The stink is real and shouldn’t be denied. But it is also no reason for despair, because this is precisely the kind of situation to which Christ has come.
This simple image brings the message through a lot better than all the more abstract Christmas sermons I ever heard. Of course it involves telling the congregation they stink, but we all seem to have taken it as slightly funny rather than offensive.
I think going into that kind of detail is beautifull. The abstract theological explanations sure have their place, but it is awfully easy to drown the message in sentimental intellectuality while missing it at the gut level. Really, Christmas is that concrete and messy, that is what the incarnation is all about.