[Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Catholic Stand, December 2, 2014. We are republishing here for your holiday enjoyment.]
So much popular Christmas music deals with going home. I can remember passing around the tissues as the song “I’ll be Home for Christmas” turned a bunch of military wives into a weepy mess. Our hearts longed for home but we were so far away it was impossible to be with our extended families at Christmas.
Similarly, Trans-Siberian Orchestra offers a tender ballad, “Old City Bar”, that chronicles how a crusty old bartender is moved to empty his cash drawer to help a young girl fly home on Christmas Eve. Which of us would not want to do the same if given the opportunity?
But do we feel the same when Holy Mother Church’s children return home for Christmas? Every year the pews are packed with prodigal sons and daughters who may not have seen the inside of a church since last Easter or even last Christmas.
It is easy to spot them. They look a little uneasy. They keep saying “And also with you” instead of “And with your spirit”. They and their children are confused about the postures and gestures of Mass.
Those of us who have made it to Mass every Sunday may be tempted to sneer and derisively label them “C and E Catholics”. After all, we are the ones teaching CCD, organizing the youth group, volunteering for the choir and putting our envelope in the basket every week. And now these slackers show up on one of the holiest days of the year, create chaos in the parking lot, squeeze into our pew and expect to enjoy the glory and majesty of Christmas Mass as if they belonged.
Actually, they do belong every bit as much as we do. Before we get too wrapped up in our indignation and start channeling the Prodigal Son’s older brother wailing, “That’s not fair!”, we need to take a step back.
The truth is that we do not know what crosses are brothers and sisters are carrying. We do not know their sorrows and their challenges. We do not know what stumbling blocks, hurts, or simple misunderstandings have kept them from coming to Mass.
What we do know are the truths of our own lives. Has our pride and self-righteousness taken the charity out of our religious zeal? Have we forgotten that acts of piety are a means to strengthening our relationship with God and not an end in and of themselves? Are we so confident in our own merits that we forget the source of all goodness, including our own?
As St. Paul tells us:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Advent is a good time to rekindle our charity and refocus our piety. Begin with an examination of conscience and a good confession, laying bare the sins that build resentment and deny mercy. In doing so I think most of us will find we have far more in common with the Prodigal Son than with the Older Brother.
I believe this is what Pope Francis is calling us to do when he urges us to reach out to the marginalized. We must welcome them back into the fold with a loving embrace instead of barring the door with condemnation. If the Church is a field hospital, as Pope Francis says, then we are all patients. Our illnesses vary, but we share the need for healing.
I challenge each of us to use this Advent to prepare ourselves to welcome all with humility and love, instead of with pride and condescension. Have patience in the overflowing parking lot and rejoice that pews are crowded instead of empty.
Offer up these little sacrifices for the conversion of hearts and the return of lapsed Catholics. Let us celebrate that there is still a spark within them that calls them home. A warm smile and greeting from us may be all that it takes to kindle that spark into a flame that brings them home before next Christmas.