It was Christmas Eve at St. Francis which stood in the middle of what they called “Old Town,” a part of the city that was purposely unchanged since the fifties. As John walked up the center aisle of the Gothic church, he smiled at the Christmas Eve crowd and the magical odor suspended throughout the nave and sanctuary like an invisible fog. This odor of sanctity was a unique Christmas eve blend of perfumes, fresh booze, and 70 years of incense. And tonight, he would add a fresh layer of incense during the blessing of the crib.
John was famous or infamous, depending upon your point of view, for his Christmas Eve homilies. Always something different. It was John’s preference not to spreak from the pulpit. Instead, he preferred walking back and forth in front of the first row of pews and occasionally about half way down the center aisle.
One year, he asked the adults, who suddenly became shy, what they knew about the meaning of Christmas. The kids throughout the congregation spontaneously and proudly shouted out answers. As unmanageable as it seemed to become, John loved every minute of it as did the kids. The adults haven’t stopped talking about it, but have continued to show up for midnight Mass anyway, most likely because by the time Midnight Mass rolls around, they are all a tad or a lot tipsy, at least enough to ultimately not care what Father John might have up his sleeve this Christmas Eve.
When it came time for the homily, John stood on the step of the sanctuary where the congregation in years past had knelt to receive communion. He stood there for a painfully long time, looking about the congregation as if he were looking for someone in particular. He would tell you that he was really looking for everyone, and he also admitted that he did derive at least a little sadistic pleasure from the discomfort that gradually rose to a dead silence. And when there was not even the sound of breathing, he stepped down into the nave and began to speak.
“What a good looking group here tonight! Merry Christmas.”
The congregation laughed a little and many responded with, “Merry Christmas, Father.”
For a moment, he donned an Irish brogue. “So yar all sober are ya? Raise yar hands!”
Some folks who were obviously not sober raised their hands and most folks just laughed. A six year old in the middle of the congregation shouted out, “Mom says Dad’s not sober,” and the congregation roared as they turned around to see who the embarrassed parents were!
“Well, sober ar not, we’re har tis Christmas Eve, we are, ta celebrate sometin vary special.” And with that, he smiled, cleared his throat, and set aside his brogue.
“You know, I had to study for quite a few years to become a priest, and since my ordination, I have continued to study a great many things. I have read all the great philosophers and theologians. I’ve read the scriptures in Greek, Latin, and English and studied the Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures as well. I familiarized myself with other religions like Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism. I’ve studied the Shamans and the medicine men and women of our Native American peoples. From all my studying, I learned a lot about God, but I never really found God.
“It seems that God is nowhere to be found in a church, a synagogue, a mosque or in any religious organization, nor in any particular theology. God is even difficult to find in the Scriptures that are often packed-full of violence and holy people who are quite judgmental and self righteous. The God in the Scriptures is also quite often judgmental, angry and vengeful, worse sometimes than all the so-called false gods.
"But I’m happy to tell you this evening, that one day, I did find God. You might even say, stumbled upon God. It was about six years ago when I had to admit to myself that I drank too much. And I was fortunate enough to find a group of folks who like me, admitted that they drank too much as well. And I started getting together with these folks almost every morning, and we would share just what it takes for us to stay sober one day at a time. And we all agree that it is a journey and spiritual journey at that.
“Through sharing with these other ordinary people who also found God interestingly enough at the most humbling moment of their lives, and who have decided to literally turn their lives over to the care of God in order to remain sober, I discovered that there was a door through which I could walk if I choose. That door was the entrance to my heart and my soul, to the part of me that is both mysterious and sacred. The God that I found there was not interested in judging me. In fact, this God doesn’t approve of me being afraid of Him. This God was not only willing to take care of my life, but actually whispered in my ear, 'I love you, John. I love you, John, I do. I do.'"
“I slowly found peace and serenity with this God in my heart and my soul. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow! All these years of studying and I missed God completely. God was right here, all the time waiting for me, not to find Him, but to simply open my eyes and recognize Him, right there in my heart and soul.’”
“Well, then something really amazing happened, like two days ago. One of the folks in this morning group of drunks I was telling you about shared this most amazing story. He was telling us that it dawned on him recently that seven Christmases ago, the woman of his dreams, who was only an acquaintance at the time, actually dreamt about him.
“‘Can you believe that?’ he said. ‘The woman of my dreams, who I didn’t even know really at the time, she was actually dreaming about me. I was in her dreams. She dreamt that we were sitting together all snuggled up in front of a fire place, just watching the fire.’”
“He went on to tell us that eight months later they started a serious romantic relationship, and now six Christmases later, they’re still madly in love. They’re romantics and a couple of old folks like many of us here this evening who have been up and down the roller coaster of life through both the storms and the calm, trying to live with crazy family members and even sane ones. We all know that story, don’t we? And most of us think we’re the only sane ones in our families.” And the congregation laughed.
“So why am I sharing this story with you? Well, here’s what I got out of the story. You see a few minutes ago, I talked about finding God in my own heart and soul, but after listening to this man share about the woman of his dreams dreaming about him, I realized that I have it all wrong. God is not in my heart and soul. I am in God’s heart and soul, and I am in God’s dream just like each and everyone of you are in God’s dream. So you see, there can be no way that we are separate from God. We are literally a part of God, in particular, God’s dream.
“So why did God send Jesus to us on Christmas? He didn’t send Jesus so that we could turn around and kill him and that we did. He did not send Jesus to die for our sins. I know that sounds like heresy and you can email the Bishop when you get home.” The congregation laughed. “But think about it. He sent Jesus to let us know we are not separate from God, but a part of God just like Jesus.
“Our job is not to repent for our sins. But to simply come to our senses and realize that we are God’s dream and to keep ourselves precious and sacred because that is how God dreams us to be.
“Oh, I could go on and on here this evening talking about how we get caught up seeing God as a judge instead of as a lover. I could go on and on about how we tend to fear God and of course, love and fear don’t mix, and God is love, right? So God and fear can’t mix either. But I think I want to keep it ever so simple as is the Christmas story itself. A babe being born and layed in a manger.
“So take a few moments, right now.” He returned to his chair, and continued talking. “Let’s all close our eyes and just let ourselves become aware. You and I are God’s dream.”
He closed his eyes and drifted off momentarily and then awoke with a startle. At first he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. He glanced at his watch and to his relief, only a few minutes. When he stood up, he quickly looked around at the congregation. They were all sitting peacefully, including the kids, with their eyes closed. He smiled to himself. And then quietly said, “Please stand.”