I don't often publish homilies. In fact, I usually throw them away as soon as I'm finished preaching; I don't want to be one of those priests who keep recirculating the same old homilies. I like to pray over the readings all week and see what the Lord is saying to me. So truth be told, I guess every homily I preach is one that I need to hear. A little humbling, I guess. Even if I decide to use an old idea, it's because it occurs to me in prayer – maybe because I still need to hear it.
Anyhow, this is the homily I gave for our Advent Liturgy here at Georgetown Prep this past Friday at the end of exams and as the guys were preparing to leave for Break. For some reason, this memory kept coming back to me all week.
Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.
- Isaiah 40:1
I'm going tell you a Christmas story. I hope you'll get the point. It's about why we need Christmas. It's a true story.
A good Christmas story always begins with snow – real snow, Buffalo snow. It was a snowy Saturday morning in Buffalo shortly before Christmas, and some of my students, a few of my colleagues, and I were begging for donations for the Canisius High School canned food drive at a grocery store in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Buffalo, a place called Orchard Park, which is where I grew up even though my family was anything but wealthy. We would station ourselves at the front door of the store and every time someone came to the store one of the guys would approach them and say, "Hi, we're from Canisius High School and we're having a food drive to help out St. Anne's Pantry in the Center City, and if you could help out by getting a couple extra cans or dropping off some change, we'd be very grateful." And since it was snowing the guys also made an effort to be helpful, opening car doors for old people or carrying bags or pushing grocery carts through the snow. And they were having a great time of it, proud because they knew they were doing something really good, and there's nothing like doing good things at Christmas time, especially when it's snowing. There wasn't much snow, by the way, only about 11 inches, but it was magical snow. Buffalo snow. Christmas snow.
Well, we'd been there about an hour, when a lady – clearly a mom - drove up. And the guys ran over and opened the car door for her, and began: "Hi, we're from Canisius High School and we're having a food drive to help out St. Anne's Pantry in the Center City, and if you could help out by getting a couple extra cans or dropping off some change, we'd be very grateful." She eyed one of them - the captain of the soccer team - and snarled at him: "So, how much did Canisius pay the refs at the championship game?" Suddenly they all recognized her - she was a St. Joe's soccer mom (St. Joe's is even worse than Bullis if you go to Canisius), and we had beaten them two weeks earlier, badly. The guys were cowed, but one of them continued: "If you could help out by getting a couple extra cans or dropping off some change, we'd be very grateful." She stopped, looked at him, and stalked into the store.
About a half-hour later, she walked out and strode over to our table and set down the two bags of groceries she was carrying. "Just a minute," she said as she sorted through them, looking for something. She pulled out two boxes of mac and cheese, and said, "I'm glad you guys are doing this." And she walked away, leaving the two bags of groceries.
A little while later a kid came along on a bike. My guys laughed; he was wearing a St. Frannie's jacket, bright red against the white snow, and he was riding a bike - what sort of moron rides a bike in 12 inches of snow and 15 degrees? But he asked why we were out in a snowstorm freezing to death - he thought Canisius guys were smart. And the guys told him. And he went into the store and a few minutes later came out to grab his now snow-covered bike. And he stopped at the table and dropped over $15 in our change jar. "I was just getting some gum," he said, and he held up the pack as though we needed proof. "Would you guys like some?" And as he rode off through the snow he yelled over his shoulder, "Good luck, guys! Merry Christmas!"
Well, about an hour after that, just before we were due to finish up, an older gentleman drove up. And the guys ran over to help him out of his car. It was a beautiful car, by the way, one of the first of the new Caddies after GM dropped the box-look. Sleek. Even in the snow, it was beautiful, a rich burgundy against the white. As soon as they got the door opened and he stepped out, they started: "Hi, we're from Canisius High School and we're having a food drive to help out St. Anne's Pantry in the Center City, and if you could help out by getting a couple extra cans or dropping off some change, we'd be very grateful."
"Where are you from?" he asked. And when they responded, "Canisius!" he stood up very straight and tall. "I went to Canisius," he said, and told them his year, and told a couple of funny stories about his time there, and asked how the football team had done, and if Mr. Mac was still coaching baseball. And the guys were delighted. "So what's this you're doing?" he asked. And they explained as they walked with him. And he stopped in the snow and stared at them. "Let them starve," he said, and walked into the store.
The guys were silent when he came out, but one of them helped him over to his car - the snow was getting deep now, maybe 15 inches - and another came over and scraped the snow off that beautiful vehicle. And he drove away.
"Let them starve."
My brothers and sisters, I have no idea why he said that; it may be that he had just lost his job or his wife, or that his daughter had cancer and was at Roswell Park, or that he had been told that he was dying. It may be that that beautiful car was the only thing he owned. But we drove back to Canisius in silence. And the snow continued to fall.
A while later, just before we went on Break, one of the guys - a junior - stopped by my classroom. "That's why we need Christmas," he said. "That man is why we need Christmas."
My brothers and sisters, Christmas is beautiful. But we don't celebrate it because it is beautiful. We celebrate it because we need it. And God knows that. God knows that we need someone to be for-and-with us, Emmanuel in the Hebrew, someone who will lay down his life for us.
As we go to celebrate with family and friends, let's remember that man. Because that man lives in each one of us - we are each one of us capable of that coldness. And we - you, me, all of us - we all need someone to show us how to be more than that. Someone to show us what it is to be truly generous - someone who will lay down his life so that we will see - really see - how much God really loves us.
With all my prayers for you and for Georgetown Prep. God bless, and Merry, Merry Christmas!
Rev. James R. Van Dyke, S.J.