Homily – “What do you want?” vs. “Who are you?”

Homily for the Sunday after Christmas
[“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”]

It is common for us to lament the commercialization of Christmas, complaining that we have lost the “reason for the season.”  I think this is true.  Many of us are thankful that we are on the “Old Calendar” so that we can separate Nativity-as-worship (celebrated on January 7th) from Christmas-as-crazy (celebrated on December 25th).  

I think that the most troubling effect of this change in how we celebrate Christmas is also one of the subtlest, and it starts when we are very young.  Think about it: what is the question that people continually ask children during Advent?  

“What do you want for Christmas?”


Is Santa Clause a Shadow?

Is Santa Clause a Shadow?

Now don’t think that I’m a humbug.  Our Nativity homily was full of positive references to gift-giving, but where does this question focus the mind of child?  What does it do to their character?  Why do they “like Christmas?”  

I am sure you understand what I mean: we build up their anticipation and enjoyment of Christmas – a good thing – by stoking their selfishness – a bad thing.  In the long run, this can still be very healthy: the positive emotions that children feel for Christmas can create the space for an enjoyment of its deeper glories as they mature.  Ditto for receiving gifts: for the child, the focus may be on the toys and games; for the adult this is replaced by an appreciation of God’s gift of His Son.  

My problem with is that some people never get to that next step.  They never mature spiritually.  The question “what do I want” continues to drive them, and the degree to which they are able to get “what they want” determines their self-worth, gratitude, and peace [i.e. happiness].  Just as a child’s understanding of Christmas is perverted by his time on Santa’s lap; so is everyone else’s understanding of life perverted by advertisements and artificially created desires and expectations.

“What do you want?” is a question for children, not for serious people.   The question for serious people is not “what do you want”, but “who are you?” or “whom are you striving to become?”

The real Saint Nicholas is more like the Vorlon!

The real Saint Nicholas is more like the Vorlon!

The immature person’s identity is determined by what they want; adults don’t allow that to happen: everything else flows from who they are.  This is not just semantics.  Saints are not affected by whether or not their efforts are rewarded – much less whether or not the results are “enjoyable;” nor does it hurt them when their plans are thwarted.  What hurts saints is damage to who they are; what hurts them is when they settle for something less than being holy and good.  When saints are hurt [or “unhappy”], the balm for their pain [and discontent] is not a better plan for getting what they want or even setting more realistic goals; [no,] it is confession that heals their pain.

This may be too abstract.  Let me give you three examples to flesh this out.

The life of a soldier.  Not romantic.  A lot of drudgery.  Time spent – even wasted – in uncomfortable situations.  Why do they put up with that?  It certainly isn’t because it is what they want!  Soldiers may “embrace the dirt [suck – pardon my French]”, but it’s not because they like it.  Many of them will even re-enlist knowing there will be more of the same; and it’s not because they have martyrdom complexes.  I am sure you have heard the truth that when it really hits the fan, the soldier does not fight for ideas, or his country, or even his family; he fights for the soldiers around him who depend on him.  I am sure this is true, but that is the source of courage in the face of danger, not the source of endurance in the midst of suffering.  So why does the soldier do it?  Why does he persevere?  It’s not because it’s fun [i.e. what he “wants” or enjoys] and it’s not from courage.  He does it because he is a soldier.  

The life of the mother.  The life of the mother is not romantic, either.  It brings a lot of discomfort.  Why does a mother put up with the inconveniences a child brings?  Is it because she somehow “likes it”?  As if there could ever be anything enjoyable about sleep deprivation and sacrifice!  The mother endures discomfort for her children because she is their mother.  It’s not about what she wants, it’s about who she is.  

While we are speaking of families, [skip the role of the father, and] look at husbands and wives: they are not married to one another because they love one another.  This may be what got them to the crowning service, but it isn’t why they remain true to one another even when their life together gets hard.  Husband and wives love one another, husbands and wives remain true to their marriage, because they are married.  The man is husband to his wife and the woman is wife to her husband.  God has made them one flesh “and let no man” not even themselves, sunder their union.  Grown up children do not get this.  They still think it’s about what they want.  Hence so many unhappy marriages and divorces.

[Another example: the life of the priest.  I am not your priest because I love you; I love you because I am your priest.  I am not in New England – away from family that could use my help, separated from the culture that I love, living among people whose values I often find repugnant – because I want to be here.  I am here because I am a priest and this is where I have been sent.  And I love being here not because being here gives me “what I want”, but because this is where I serve.  I am here, loving you, because I am your priest.  This may sound offensive, but it shouldn’t; my dedication to you has nothing to do with my feelings for you or how much I like life in Woonsocket – it flows inexorably from who I am.  Parish life built upon this reality – as with a marriage built on the same – is much more reliable and more joyful than one that is hostage to feelings!]

Today’s Saints.  David.  The one time he messed up was when he cared more about what he wanted than who he was.  Joseph – the Righteous.  Look at the sacrifices that man made.  Do you think his “retirement” life was fun?  He didn’t do it because he wanted to, but because he was a good man.

If someone asks you what you want, they are either trying to selling something you don’t need or they are being condescending towards you by treating you like a child.  [And honestly,] If you are more concerned about what you want than what is good and right, then you have earned their condescension because you are spiritually immature.  

One of our problems here in America is that we a nation of children, more concerned with getting what we want than in doing what is right.  

Christ the Messiah did not think of what he wanted when he sacrificed himself.  He did not think the adoration of the angels and everything that He was due as God was something to be exploited or “wanted.”  He is the God who loves, the great I Am; and so he deigned to be born in a manger for us and for our salvation.  

And He has given the power to work this salvation to His Church and to its saints.  He has given this power to us.  As Christians, we are Christ to this world.  That is who we are.

Because I love you, I don’t care what you want.  I will not treat you like children – unless you act that way.  What I do need to know is firstly, “Who are you?” and secondly, “what are you willing to do to bring salvation to the suffering people here and now in this little part of New England?”  If you are mature, if you are serious about your life in Christ, then you won’t care about what you want any more than I do … and good deeds [and sacrifice] will flow from you as surely and strongly as living water from the fount of righteousness.

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!