Christmas Is For Children
In his homily for Christmas Day, Year A, Father Hanly tells us we must become like little children or we will never know what the love of the Kingdom is all about.
Readings for Christmas Day, Year A
- First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6
- Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-6
- Gospel: John 1:1-18 or 1:1-5, 9-14
but Father chose to read the traditional gospel for Christmas from Midnight Mass.
The gospel (Father chose to use the traditional homily for Christmas from Midnight Mass) is such a wonderful gospel you forget that it was written about two thousand years ago by an obscure Gentile, the only Gentile to have anything written and placed in the Bible, St Luke.
St Luke was a friend of St Paul. And he knew Mary very closely and he knew all the incidents surrounding the birth of Jesus very well. And this is the gospel that he has left us.
The first thing you notice is that it’s for children. It’s for children, not for adults. And Jesus once said, “Unless you become a little child, you’ll never know what it’s all about,” the kingdom of heaven, the love of God and, certainly most of all, this very strange and beautiful and on the edges of a kind of a story that you say it can only happen in fiction. And yet nothing in the Bible, nothing, has ever been considered fiction. It is the word of God and therefore today we are very happy to receive it once again.
I’m just going to tell two stories and then a small conclusion, because you cannot explain the gospel. We always look for explanations. We are raised in a world where explanations are considered quite important and people who explain well, they are the ones who are the leaders of the world in which we live.
The Bible is different: stories, just simple little stories. Jesus never explains anything. He says proverbs and stories. He entices the imagination. No explanations are necessary. In stories, you accept the story. And the truth is not in explaining the story, it is receiving the story into your own heart.
I think probably very few of you are as old as I am, but I can remember my favourite story. I’m sure you must have seen it because it’s repeated again and again and it has to do with Christmas time. And it’s the story of the little match girl. It’s a sentimental story, but underlying it is a great, great truth.
And as the story goes, it’s New York City and it’s a terrible winter’s day. And there’s a little girl, raggedy and barefoot, and she’s in front of a nightclub and she’s there with her matches. That’s why she’s the little match girl, because she sells matches for a living. Her father died many years before. Her mother was a lovely lady, but she got tuberculosis, which was quite common in New York at that time, and she too passed away.
And so we have the little match girl in front of the nightclub, with all very important people going in and out, selling her little matches. And, of course, it begins to snow. And as the snow deepens, she gets colder and colder. But no one is paying any attention to her. They’re busy about going in and out. And it’s Christmas Eve and they’re celebrating Christmas Day.
And so it is that she remembers her mother saying, “Someday, I will take you home.”
She begins to realise that she’s quite cold, so what she does is she lights her own little matches, one by one, just to keep warm as the snow comes down. And then, after a while, box after box, she comes to the very end of the matches.
And the last match, there’s a glare and a glow from it, unlike the other matches. And she seems as if she’s falling asleep. But there’s a great light and a lovely woman in blue comes down and takes her by the hand and leads her up where her mother waits for her.
And, of course, after the party is over, the people come out and what do they see? A ring of burnt out matches and a little girl who has died. But they do not hear the angels sing and they do not understand that her mother, true to her word, said, “I will send someone to bring you safely home.”
And that is where the story ends. And it’s a lovely story and I’m sure you will hear it again and again.
What is the great underlying truth in this?
Jesus came like the poor match girl. He came, he was born in poverty. His mother was maybe fifteen years old, sixteen years old. She was not married, pregnant, came a hundred miles down from the tip of Galilee all the way to the little village of Bethlehem. A terrible trial, and even more so for Joseph who stumbled along day after day. And they finally made their way to Bethlehem. And then, suddenly, her time had come and the child was born.
And where does she place the child? You would think if it’s God’s child, the whole world was cheering, but no. No place to lay the child and, finally, a friendly passer-by brings them to a cave and, in the cave, there are animals, and there the child is born and laid in the manger.
The awesomeness, the wonder of it: God Himself sending us His only Son, sending us His only Son and He cannot afford to give Him even a decent little place to be born in? He cannot afford to even take care of His own Son?
And we wonder at it and we think of it. And, years later, we will begin to understand that the child had to come this way because the Kingdom of God belongs only to children. And the children, underneath it all, what makes a child a child is the fact that he must depend totally and completely on the people around him in order to survive.
And so it is that Joseph is very important, for he will be the stepfather of the child and take care of him. And Mary, Mary the mother, is the most important, because it is in the arms of Mary that the child will live and have a home.
God was saying to us the thing that all children understand, that a child is, in the heart, dependent on others in order to survive.
And Jesus later preached the great doctrine that, no matter who you are, how rich you think you are, how famous you might want to become, what defines a child is they know their need for God and, in knowing their need for God, they reach out in faith and give Him the totality of their lives.
And that is what the story of the little match girl tells us: that God is not relying upon us human beings to take care of the whole world. The times like the little match girl where He intervenes and brings her safely home, because the nice little girl, she always listened to her mother who said, “God will never desert you and you will come safely home.”
The second story is one that I’ve told a couple of times. It’s about a young man. He’s living in a kind of a poor house, a lodging house, and he’s a scholar of some sort. He’s preparing for his final exams and he’s very assiduous and working very hard.
And, finally, he decides to go for a walk and it’s Christmas Eve. And he walks out on Christmas Eve, down the stairs and out into the street. And he sees a poor little boy. And the poor little boy is standing by a lamppost and everybody is ignoring him.
And he looks at the poor little boy, who’s raggedy and nobody there to help him, and he gets quite angry because he’s a Christian and he is a deeply feeling Christian and he prays every day.
And he looks up to heaven and he says, “God, why aren’t you doing anything for this poor boy? Can’t you see his need?”
And then all of a sudden, a voice comes from heaven and says, “But I have done something.”
And then the young man looks at the little boy again and he says, “Well, whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t seem to be working.”
And God says to him, “No, I don’t think it seems to be working.”
And then the boy says, “Well, I don’t want to be impertinent, God, but would you tell me what you’ve done to make it possible for this boy to live?”
And God says to him, “I’ve created you. I’ve created you.”
Two stories. One tells us that no matter what happens, God will reach down and take care of us if we know our need for Him and in faith give our lives into His hands.
But the second lesson is the one of the little child. The little child grows up and what does he do? He spends his whole life caring and serving and working to make men and women better and closer and able to create a world in which there are no little match girls and no little boys who are lost and alone without God’s help.
The two stories are Christmas stories, but they’re only for children, not for adults, and if you want to understand them, you must become a child.
For Jesus says, “Unless you become a little child, you’ll never, never know what the love of the Kingdom is all about.”
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Father Hanly's sermon for Christmas Day, Year A, "Christmas Is For Children" was delivered on 25th December 2010. It is sometimes hard to accurately transcribe Father Hanly's reflections, so please let us know if you think we have made a mistake in any of our transcripts, and let us have your suggestions.
We hope that Father Hanly’s homilies, always kind, always wise, always full of love, will restore you to peace and harmony through a new understanding of what is important in this world. We believe these homilies are inspiring for everyone, not only for Roman Catholics or other Christians.