Sunday, December 20, 2015

Away in a Manger - Homily for the 4th Sunday in Advent (C)


Away in a manger.

In the United States, we are used to the light and joyful version of this song—which is really a kind of lullaby. The song happily recounts Jesus’ birth:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…

But, if you lived in France, you would likely hear another version—and not only in French, but to a totally different tune.

[Normandy version]

This version is more haunting and sounds almost like a lament walked in a slow, step-by-step pace. When I first heard this version, I felt more compelled to linger about the words. And I realized something: the very first word: Away.

Away in a manger.

Away means to be distant, to be separated from. Away in a manger—somewhere, out there. It means that somewhere, away from me, Jesus is being born—not near to me, but away. Why does the song begin this way? Because there was no crib for a bed: the rooms at the inn were full. Jesus didn’t want to be born “away,” but it was our own distance, the distance of our hearts, that provided it. Hence, the lament.

*          *          *

No matter how hard we try to prepare for Christmas, no matter how much we say “I’m not going to become busy this year,” we do. We get wrapped up. We often can be away.

Advent always has this quality—this quality of being away. Even the readings throughout the entire season speak of the Old Testament and how ancient Israel was in exile and distant from the Lord. In the New Testament, we hear about how we are not yet in heaven and at home with the Lord; we are on pilgrimage. We still are, in a way, away.

Even here at Holy Mass, Jesus is so close to us—but we can be so distracted, which is another way to say that we’re away. Jesus is so close!

In this year of mercy, in particular, I think too of all of our brothers and sisters who have fallen away from the practice of the sacraments….

*          *          *

Note the last verse of Away in a Manger.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.
Close by me forever and love thee I pray.

There is our prayer! Be near me, Lord. Be close, Lord, because I have fallen away. Be near to me—be near to all of us who are distracted, whose hearts are distant. Be born in us, Jesus! And not only in us, but in all who have fallen away.

This is the Year of Mercy, so let us pray in a particular way for this mercy: for ourselves and for those who are not here—that God will give us His grace. Because all of us can take this faith for granted and we can fall away.

God says: I want to be near to you! I want to be close to you! So, Lord, be close to us!

*          *          *

And if we’re honest, we must admit: we can’t do this ourselves. We’ve tried for four weeks now, haven’t we?—to slow down and be close. But we can’t do this ourselves. We need a Savior.

In the Gospel, we see Elizabeth in our similar predicament. Pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth must be visited. Like the peoples of the Old Testament—and, even, like ourselves—she seems that she cannot take another step toward her salvation.

And who brings our Lord close? It’s Mary! Mary will take those steps, Mary will walk with the Lord, still in her womb. Mary brings Elizabeth her salvation!

And so too with us who are away! It is Mary who will draw our Lord close to us. If we cannot be near our Lord, if we struggle being close to Him, then look to Mary! “Mary, bring Jesus close to me! Because, Mary, I cannot take another step. Mary, visit us with your Son!”

Yes, Our Lord will be near. And not only to us, but to all who are away.

*          *          *

Let us offer that final verse of Away in a Manger for all who are away, who don’t know how to come back, or who are looking for home again. Let us offer this verse as a prayer for all who will visit here on Christmas, that they will know that God is close and so near and that they don’t have to be away anymore….

            Be near me Lord Jesus
            I ask thee to stay
            close by me forever
            and love me, I pray.
            Bless all the dear children
            in thy tender care
            And fit us for heaven
            to live with thee there.

Normandy version:

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