Homily from December 16, 2007

What are you anticipating this Advent season?  What exactly are you… waiting for?

I have been interested in photography ever since I was about 15 years old… when my brother’s friend gave me an old, beat up rangefinder camera.  I remember it well.  It was a solid hunk of metal and glass and it contained about two dozen buttons and dials.  I had no idea what any of them did but I was fascinated by it.  Ever since then, I’ve loved taking pictures.  People who know me well know that I almost always have a camera with me and that you never know when I might take it out and start shooting.

Anyways, in today’s Gospel…

Actually… could you just wait one second?

<Take camera out and take a number of photographs>…

Yes, ever since that first rangefinder camera, I have been fascinated with photography and I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

Since this is the digital and internet era, about five years ago, I put together several of my very best photos into an electronic portfolio and uploaded them to a popular photography website so that I could gain the comments and feedback from other photographers.  I had often provided comments to others on that site and so, I wanted to put some of my own work out there to see what kind of reaction I’d get.  I remember posting the pictures and then waiting by the computer for comments.  And I waited.  I checked every half hour for a while, then every few hours… and days went by.  No comments.  “What?” I thought… “I’ve seen beautiful photos generate compliments and even awful ones generate tons of helpful suggestions… why isn’t anybody commenting on mine?”  Days went by, then weeks.  No comments.  Months went by… nothing.  The conclusion was obvious to me.  I had to face up to it… I stink.  All these years of practice.  All the books.  All the courses.  All for nothing.  It was very discouraging.

Then, many months later, I went in to check one last time.  There was one comment posted… and I’ll never forget it.  It was from someone with the screen identity, “Betty555”.  With great anticipation, I opened the comment and read… and I quote: “Your work is technical perfection.  But in looking at it, I learn nothing about you.  Try harder.”

Huh?  You learn nothing about me?  It’s a picture of a mountain… what do you expect to find out about me?  I didn’t get it…

I thought about that for a long, long time.  And over time, Betty555’s wisdom became clear to me.  I was all about technical perfection… but not about beauty.  I was emphasizing things like sharpness and white balance, but missing out on things like texture and movement and beauty.  My photos had none of those things.  My photography was about science… not about art.  And it was not personal.  It revealed absolutely nothing about me.

And so, I’ve spent the last five years… trying harder.  Thank you Betty555, wherever you are!

Our faith, in some ways, is a lot like… photography.  We can study it, take courses, read books about it and practice it all of our lives.  And we can obtain technical perfection… but little else.

To be a good photographer, you do need to know how to use a camera.  But to be an artist, you need more than that.  It needs to be… personal.  To be a faith filled person, we need to understand our faith.  But to have a true relationship with Jesus, we need to put ourselves into it.  It needs to be personal.  Really personal…

Remember that the very first felt presence of Jesus on earth came to the fingertips of a young maiden whose hand was placed upon her own belly.  What could possibly be more personal than that?

And so here we are… just days before we celebrate the birth of our savior.  We are anticipating him and we are awaiting his presence in our lives.  But what exactly is it we’re anticipating?  And what is it that we’re waiting for?

I remember being a young boy.  One of our family Christmas traditions was going to my aunt’s house for a big celebration.  I remember that every year, when we went there, the minute we walked into the house, she would tell the children not to touch the crèche.  It was a beautiful, and I’m sure very expensive, nativity set that my aunt placed on a small table in front of the fireplace.  She always told us every year, “the crèche is to see, not to touch”.

Well, wouldn’t you know it… one year… I became intrigued… fixated actually… by a small figurine depicting a young shepherd boy.  I remember staring at it and… wouldn’t you know… I just had to touch it.  So I did.  No sooner had I reached out my index finger than I heard a booming voice… “Stop!  The crèche is to see, not to touch.”

There is an Ignatian spiritual exercise where we are invited to consider… to imagine… the nativity scene… the actual nativity scene… and to imagine that we are there and part of it.  We are encouraged to look around… to notice the many sounds and smells.  And then we are asked to do something very extraordinary.  We are asked to approach Mary who is holding the tiny infant.  Mary looks at us and then slowly hands the infant to us.  She is tired and wants to rest.  And we are left there holding Jesus in our very own arms.  Our savior, our redeemer… there, cradled in our own arms.

Christmas is coming.  As each of us prepares for it, we have a basic choice.  It is our Advent choice.  We can approach the birth of our savior as though it’s a precious, porcelain set that’s meant to be seen, but never touched.  Or we can approach it as though we’re crouching by the infant’s manger… and then are asked to take hold of him.

During Advent, if Christ’s coming is distant… and we approach it they way we would an expensive porcelain crèche. then in a way, it’s easy.  We can go through the motions… because we have nothing at risk.  We can focus on the happy traditions of Christmas because we have nothing deeper at stake.  And when Christmas is all over, we can put away the lights and take down the tree and before too long, act as though it never even happened.

But if Christ’s coming is like holding a tiny baby, then we have to put our entire selves into it.  We have to consider whether we are living the message of Christ… to the very best of our ability.  We have to confront our own weaknesses and our own sin.  And we have to ask ourselves difficult questions, like: am I worthy to kneel by this manger and to hold my Lord and savior in my arms?

And finally, we have to be ready for when Jesus tells us, and he will tell us: “You know… this is personal.  I want you to be mine.  I want you to hold me in your arms so that I can forever hold you in mine.”

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