Come to the manger to be fed
For us, a feed trough means more than a place for animals to eat
(Following is Bp. Banks' homily given at the Christmas Mass at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral on Dec. 24 and broadcast live on Fox 11 TV.)
It's a different kind of Christmas this year. The shadow of Sept. 11 still lies across the land and across our hearts. As a people, we have been made more serious in our approach to life -- at least for a while. We are all a bit fearful because the threat of terrorism touches us all, even when we gather for fun at Lambeau; we are more appreciative of those who wear uniforms, whether they be police, firefighters or military; and we are more grateful for what we so often took for granted -- our loved ones, our country, even our faith that is such a support now.
In a way, Sept. 11 -- or rather, our reaction to it -- has made us a better people, precisely because we are more serious as a nation -- even if only for a while.
Maybe for the first time in several years, if not longer, we Christians are better able to focus on what Christmas is really about. We still enjoy Santa Claus and sing about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, but we realize that the real joy of Christmas lies some place else. This year we do not need preachers to tell us to put Christ back into Christmas. This year we want Christ in Christmas; we want to know that God cares enough to become one of us; we want to know that God is with us -- Emmanuel.
And that makes it easier for me to share with you what I think is the way to celebrate Christmas, the way the Church wants us to celebrate Christmas, the way that Jesus from the beginning intended for us to celebrate Christmas.
But I have to start with a personal story. By now those of you who do not know my background have detected an East Coast accent -- which is not New York or New Jersey, but Boston. That means I am a city-bred person who came here 11 years ago and has been introduced to rural life. And one of the lessons for which I shall always be grateful concerns Christmas.
It has to do with the word "manger." As a city person, the only time I ever heard the word "manger" was when the Christmas gospel was read. I figured the word must refer to the stable in which the Holy Family had taken refuge. But one day, driving through the countryside with my friend, Msgr. John Schuh, I pointed out a bunch of cows standing in a farmyard and said, "Looks like there will be no rain. The cows are standing up." He said, "They are just eating from the manger."
Manger! That was the first time I had ever heard a person use the word in normal conversation, and it referred to a real object -- a feeding trough.
Ever since, I cannot pass a manger without thinking of Jesus in that manger in Bethlehem. By lying in that manger, he told us as clearly as possible that he became one of us, took on flesh and blood, so that he could be our nourishment. Jesus would not only be with us; he would be within us as nourishment for the spirit.
As Jesus himself said after he fed the 5,000 years later, "I am the living bread come down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."
So this is the way to celebrate Christmas: to gather around this altar, our spiritual manger, and to receive from this manger, this altar, that body and blood which once rested in a manger in Bethlehem, the body and blood that, from the moment of its conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, was destined to be our spiritual nourishment.
What a great Christmas gift you and I receive this evening. Some of our viewers will be unable to receive Communion, but Jesus comes into the minds and hearts of believers when you just express a desire to receive him in Communion, or simply have a deeply felt desire to receive him in Communion.
Whether we receive him here, under the likeness of bread and wine, or at heart in the quiet of our homes, may Jesus let us know that he is with us and that he invites us to receive him regularly. Jesus comes regularly to the mangers of our altars. May we also come to be nourished.