Dear Friends,

Please enjoy this Monday edition of Aloha Fridays with Fr. Tim. It is the homily I preached at the late Christmas Eve service last night at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Glendale, Arizona. I hope you always remember Emmanuel: God is with us. Christmas blessings to you this Christmas season and always.


Fr. Tim

I’m going to start this evening by wishing you all a Merry Christmas. I know, I know. It’s kinda felt like Christmas since Thanksgiving. For some of us, it might have even felt like Christmas since Halloween. Ever since the movie the Nightmare Before Christmas was released 30 years ago, the two holidays have become more and more closely linked in the secular world. Once a year for about four months, Disneyland turns its famous Haunted Mansion attraction into the Haunted Mansion Holiday, featuring a mix of spooky and jolly. And that idea has kind of spread through the secular world of Christmas celebrations. We’ve had nonstop Christmas music on the radio for the past month and a half and Christmas movies have been on Hallmark round the clock. And yet, tonight, the night the Christmas season actually begins, many of those observances come to an end. Look around your neighborhood on Tuesday morning. I bet you’ll see more than one discarded Christmas tree. The commercials on television will focus on New Year’s or even Valentine’s Day. But we’ve only just begun!

            For many people here, and at churches around the world, this evening’s service is part of a larger Christmas celebration. In the old days, this service used to start at midnight. In fact, we still call it midnight mass because it’s the same liturgy that would have started at midnight in past generations. I’m guessing many of you are here after a nice fancy Christmas Eve family dinner. Maybe you’ve opened some presents already and maybe you’re heading home afterward to get cozy in your new Christmas pajamas, perhaps awaiting the annual visit from St. Nicholas and the excitement of receiving even more gifts tomorrow morning. And let me be the first to assure you that those customs are all wonderful and joyful! You see, Christmas is about a feeling. And so many of us long for that Christmas feeling. For a guy like me, and I’m guessing like many of you, who appreciate Christmas in a liturgical sense, I actually feel kinda sad when the Christmas carols are over. I’m finally ready for Christmas just in time for the rest of the world to put it to bed for the year. For us, Christmas is just beginning. For the rest of the population, they’ve had enough. They’re done. Turn out the lights. The party is finally over.

            There is some common ground between the liturgical and the secular Christmas seasons. In fact, if we step back, we might even allow ourselves to appreciate where the secular side of Christmas is coming from. You see, as I said, Christmas is about a feeling. It’s not about any specific gift we might have received. It’s not about Santa or shopping. It’s not about binge watching cheesy Christmas movies. It’s about a feeling that all of those activities bring to us. A feeling we’ve known since our childhoods. A feeling we chase. A feeling we sometimes recapture. And a feeling we want to share with the people we love. But what is that feeling?

            For those of us who are adults, I want us to think back in time. I want us to think back to what Christmas was like when we were little. Take a moment. Picture it in your mind.

            Only because I have the microphone, I get to share what I think of. I remember the glow of the Christmas tree. I remember the smell of Christmas cookies. I remember waiting anxiously all day, knowing that our family tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve. We usually had a snacky Christmas Eve dinner. Crackers and cheeses and meats. I used to love being an altar server on Christmas, and if I couldn’t do that, then I sang in the choir. One year, I sang a solo of Away in a Manger. Then, we’d go home and the three of us kids would try to sleep. I didn’t know it at the time, but I struggle with a condition called ADHD. Because of my ADHD, an already exciting time was amplified and I could absolutely never sleep on Christmas Eve night. Then, at around 3 in the morning, when there wasn’t any more noise, I’d rush downstairs and peek at all the gifts Santa had brought. The glow of the Christmas tree was so warm. It seemed so bright. Those incandescent bulbs seemed to have a warmth that LEDs of today just don’t have. Once I knew that Santa had fulfilled my wish list to my satisfaction, I was finally able to get to sleep. But not for too long! By about 5, we finally convinced our parents to wake up and to join us downstairs. We had a rule. We could peek. But we couldn’t play with anything until everyone was up.

            My two favorite gifts I ever received were an original Nintendo Gameboy and a Kelly green Notre Dame football jersey. Those were the gifts I wanted. Those were the gifts Santa brought me. Those were the gifts that brought that warm feeling to my heart. Unlike some other gifts, those were mine. They were something that I had wanted and couldn’t procure for myself. In fact, I still have both my Gameboy and my Notre Dame jersey. Those gifts give me that Christmas feeling.

            I’m guessing I’m not alone in that I chase that Christmas feeling. I chase it every time I listen to the Christmas albums I used to hear growing up. Albums by Perry Como, John Denver and the Muppets, and the Beach Boys.  I chase it every time I walk down my stairs in the evening and I see the glow emitting from my Christmas tree. I chase it when I attend Christmas Eve worship. I chase. And I chase. And I chase. And I ponder. What is it that I’m chasing? What would it be like if I ever caught it?

            Some years, I catch that feeling. One year, when I didn’t have enough money to go home from seminary for Christmas, a peer insisted that I take his car and drive home to Salt Lake to see my wife for Christmas. My mother in law bought me a hotel room in Reno on December 23 so I could drive the rest of the way on the 24th, only to walk into my house and to surprise my wife. He didn’t have to do that. But I’m eternally grateful.

            A year later, I caught the same feeling when I spent my first Christmas as a priest. I presided at three Christmas services and assisted at one more. Provo, Utah had a huge snowstorm that year. On Christmas morning, we had the only worship service in town that day. Everyone else had cancelled because of the weather, but because I arrived early and shoveled the parking lot, St. Mary’s was open. We had visitors from all over Utah County. It was incredible.

            I also caught that feeling one year when I was broke. I lived alone. I barely had enough money to pay my living expenses. I didn’t have anyone to spend the holiday with. But I made myself a yummy Christmas dinner of a turkey thigh I found at a nearby grocery store and a bowl of mashed potatoes. I had Christmas alone with my three dogs and my cat. I found an old taper candle in my junk drawer to light, and I used and empty beer can as a candle holder. It was pathetic. And yet, it was beautiful.

            Every once in a while, I catch the feeling. And it’s wonderful. It’s so wonderful, in fact, that I want to make sure we put together a wonderful Christmas service here at St. John’s. If Christmas worship is part of your Christmas feeling, I want to make sure it’s the best it can be. Christmas is magic. And it isn’t magic because of Santa or presents or Christmas songs. It’s magic because of that Christmas feeling. It’s magic because of love.

            It’s fun to go out and look at lights. It’s fun to take pictures on Santa’s lap. It’s fun to sing Christmas songs. It’s fun to drink a little too much eggnog. It’s fun to open that silly white elephant gift. And fun is good. As your priest, I encourage you to have fun. I just don’t want that Christmas feeling to stop there.

            You see, that Christmas feeling is love.

            We all know the Christmas story we just heard. We all know about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus and then wrapping him in swaddling and placing him in a manger. But the real theme is love. God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son. God is love. Jesus is God. Jesus is love. Love was born at Christmas.

            Sometimes we don’t catch that feeling we chase. I know all about family dysfunction. I know all about friends who don’t want to be friends anymore. I know all about eating a cheap Christmas meal alone because there isn’t anyone to spend the holiday with. And through it all, we’re not alone. Through it all, we’re loved.

            All through the Advent season, we’ve been singing a song called O Come O Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel is here. Emmanuel means God is with us. Christmas is that reminder that God is with us. He’s with us when we’re happy, he’s with us when we’re sad, and he’s with us everywhere in between. He’s with us when we’ve received our favorite Christmas gift and he’s with us when we didn’t receive a single gift at all. That Christmas feeling is love. God is love.  And love came to us at Christmas.

            What did you picture when you thought about that Christmas feeling? Did you think of the warm glow of the lights on the tree? Did you think of that Gameboy or that Notre Dame football jersey? Did you think of something that to you was way better? That’s the love we experience on Christmas. That’s the feeling we chase.

            This Christmas, take some time to feel your feelings. Are you happy because the whole family is finally together for the first time in years? Are you grieving because a loved one died this year? Are you indifferent because it’s just been like any old year? No matter where you stand, I want to ask you to take this opportunity to welcome love into your heart. Jesus is love. And love came to us on Christmas. You can’t do anything to earn love. You are loved as you are. You can’t do anything to reject love. You’re loved even if you don’t want to be loved. Try as we might, God’s love shines through. God’s love shines through the pain. It shines through the darkness of the winter. It shines through the cold and through the summertime heat. It shines through the losses and the sadness and it amplifies the happiness and the joys. Your only job is to welcome the love. Welcome the love of God into your heart.

            On this Christmas Eve, remember Emmanuel. God is with us. And through the magic of Christmas, God will be with us forever.

Merry Christmas from Fr. Tim! Christmas Eve Homily 2023