We are family: welcome home!
You may have seen those words on the banner outside the church; you may have heard them—or words like them—on television. For twelve days the Catholic Church of Vancouver has been saying “Catholics come home,” and we hope that some of you are here tonight because you heard that invitation.
Catholics come home. Home to your local parish? Certainly, for a family has to gather.
But tonight I’d like to welcome you home to a place far from West Vancouver. Welcome home… to Bethlehem. For there would be no Catholic Church, no church at all, if Mary had not given birth at Bethlehem, and placed her newborn in a manger for all ages to adore.
Some of us have wandered far from Bethlehem—far from the innocent wonder that we felt as children on this holy night. Caught up in the cares of adulthood, we have lost the ability to sing with the angels and to share the pure and holy joy of faith in God’s only Son, the Prince of Peace.
We’ve looked for relief from pain and found none; we’ve looked for freedom, only to become enslaved. Success promised us a happy future and delivered more strain and stress than we can handle.
Yet Bethlehem still beckons. The Christ Child still welcomes us. It’s He—not an announcer on television—who says “welcome.” Welcome to the rough stable from which the brightest of all lights shines into our personal darkness, offering a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that is beyond all human understanding.
We are family as we sing with the angels and wonder with the shepherds—because the Son of God is Son of man, one like us, one of us. Precisely because He is our brother as well as our Lord, we are home at Bethlehem this Christmas night.
To those who may have forgotten how to wonder and to worship, to those who have lost the sense of peace, the Church says tonight “welcome home to Bethlehem.”
And there are other places to visit this night, other places to which the Church welcomes and invites us. Mary and Joseph made their way from Nazareth that first Christmas, and returned there to raise their child. Nazareth, Pope Paul VI said when he visited there, “is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel.”
“First,” he said, “we learn from its silence. … The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers."
“Second, we learn about family life.” Nazareth offers a model of what the family should be. It shows us the family’s holy and enduring character and its fundamental place in society: “a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings.”
“Finally,” Pope Paul concludes, “in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work…” We learn of its demands and its dignity.
Tonight the Church welcomes us home to Nazareth, where we can see how husband, wife and children can withstand cultural and economic storms by living the truths taught in that holy home.
Tonight the Church says “welcome home to silence.” Welcome home to meditation and prayer that can still the chaos of this noisy world. Welcome home to a vision of your daily work that can give it deeper meaning and purpose, and ease some of its burdens by transforming them.
Bethlehem and Nazareth. Enough homecomings for one Christmas? No, because the story isn’t finished. It ends in Jerusalem, and to this holiest of cities the Church welcomes us as well.
At Jerusalem, the same Christ we celebrate tonight completed the mission for which He was born. There, He broke the rod of our oppressor; there He snapped the bar that had been laid across our shoulders, yoking us and weighing us down. There He broke the bonds of sin and death—freeing us from the darkest of all our fears—because there He rose from the dead.
The Church welcomes us home to Jerusalem because what Jesus accomplished there he did for us. It was our flesh He ransomed, in our flesh He rose.
In fact, when we say “Catholics come home” most of all we are saying “come home to Jerusalem”—to the heavenly Jerusalem of which each Mass is a foretaste. Each Sunday the Mass takes the believer as close to the risen Saviour as you can get this side of heaven. Is it any wonder that we hope you will share this miracle with us every week?
I offer Mass at an altar—an altar being from ancient times a place of sacrifice. But it is a table, too, and we miss the baptized who are not around the table, just as you will miss those who aren’t with you at dinner tomorrow, especially if some family conflict or misunderstanding is the cause.
Finally, this journey to sacred places on this holy night must take us to Rome. Not without reason you’ll see the majestic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica on our Catholics Come Home banner. Jesus, of course, never saw Rome. It represents for us something different than Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Rome is the center of unity for Catholics. It’s where the truths Jesus taught are preserved from error and where we have a visible sign of His continuing presence as our teacher and guide. It’s a historical place where the perfect life of Jesus meets the imperfect lives of his human followers. Rome has seen some of Christianity’s finest moments, and some of its worst; saints and sinners have followed St. Peter, the first Pope—reminding us that Jesus chose ordinary people, not angels, to carry on his mission.
When we say “welcome home” to Catholics who have been away for a while, we’re not welcoming them to a perfect party. We say “we are family,” and so we are. But a priest friend of mine often remarks that we are a messy family—just like those we’ll join for Christmas dinner. Uncle Fred, who drinks too much, and Aunt Mildred with her nasty put-downs. And maybe even Cousin Harold, who just got out on parole.
A messy family, to be sure. But a family that is at home in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, and one that will help you find a welcome in the heavenly city when your days are over.
We are family. Welcome home.