Our world can at times seem to be a place that has lost all hope. We arrived home on Friday evening with the news of another senseless tragedy at a school in a peaceful town where these types of things are not supposed to happen.
What makes the impact of this event so great is that most of us can relate to the people on our TV screens that this was happening too. We have all been students; some of us still are, and many of us are parents and/or grandparents.
Where in the world is there room for hope?
Truth be told that for many people Christmas is one of the loneliest and stress-filled times of the year.
As we gather here on what we called Gaudete Sunday (Pink Candle Sunday), Gaudete being the Latin word for Rejoice, there seems to be little to rejoice about.
Another question; why would our all-powerful God choose to send his son into this ‘god-forsaken’ world as a helpless infant, born to an unwed teenage mother?
At our recent Dismas Fellowship Christmas gathering my friend Rev. Harry told a story about a prison chaplain Pierre Allard that might help answer these puzzling questions.
Pierre Allard is a legend in many ways among those who minister to prisoners. Early in his career as a Prison Chaplain he was stationed at one of the toughest maximum-security jails in Canada. The men held at this institution where some of the most dangerous in the country.
Pierre and his wife had just had a child. In his faith tradition, they have what I believe is called a Dedication Service. Pierre thought about where to have this ceremony. He concluded that they should celebrate it in the prison with the men who regularly participated in the services he held at the chapel.
He approached the warden with this idea, and the immediate reaction from his boss was: “NO WAY- ARE YOU CRAZY!”
Not one to take no for an answer Pierre persisted and finally, the warden agreed on one condition. That condition was that the men were not to be told in advance what was happening. Pierre agreed.
On the appointed day, the men were gathered from the different ranges. They came in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. You can imagine the assembly that day. The participants were, for the most part, individuals toughened by life and their extensive experiences inside the prison walls.
Pierre paints the picture of these harden criminals standing in a circle talking aimlessly. His wife arrives with the infant in her arms. The room goes quiet. One of the men takes the baby in his arms, and soon this child is being passed around the circle.
Pierre relates the impact this tiny, helpless infant had on these grown men. By the time the baby made it back into her mother’s arms many of the men had tears coming down their cheeks. Their previously hardened hearts had, at least for a brief moment, been melted by this child.
Chaplain Allard’s story gives us some insight into why the king of the universe, Jesus the Christ, chose to come into the world as a helpless infant.
In today’s gospel passage the assembled crowd, having heard John preach about the coming Messiah ask him:
“What should we do to be prepared?”
His answer to them is startling. “If you have two coats give one away.”
This question: “What should we do to be prepared for the coming of the Lord”, is as important today as it was when it was asked of John the Baptist.
Perhaps the front hall closet of our homes holds the answer to this question.
Most of our homes have one thing in common- this closet is overcrowded. It is where we store all of our coats.
In our house, there is a rite of passage I call the yearly migration of the coats. We have just had the flight of the summer jackets to the basement, and on the way they were passed by the bulky winter parkas.
Another common ritual of the Christmas season is ‘making room’ in the front hall closet for the coats of the guests who will be coming to our homes for a meal or party.
This stuffed to overflowing closet is a powerful metaphor for our hearts. For many of us, there is simply no room in our hearts to welcome the gift of the spirit that is being offered to us by this infant, born in a stable because, ironically, there was no room at the inn.
Our hearts, like that front hall closet can become filled with useless items. We cling to these things, that have no real use to us, because we fear getting rid of them. All too soon many of us find that there is no room for love and tenderness in our hearts. They have been crowded out by bitterness, anger and fear.
John the Baptist is telling us this weekend to make room in our hearts by giving away the coats we do not need.
Like the men in that prison, we can choose to let Mary’s baby boy melt the hard places of our heart. If we have the courage to change we can make room in our hearts for the Christ, and once we fully welcome him into our lives we will be amazed at how hope replaces bitterness.
How do we get rid of these unwanted coats?
The answer is easy but not simple. We do this by living lives of love and becoming experts at the habit of forgiveness.
Many of the coats we cling to are the past hurts we have caused others. We are too afraid to put those coats on and to approach those we have wronged and to ask for forgiveness. We don’t ask because we fear they may reject us.
We all have coats that are the most difficult to get rid of. These represent the things in our life that we simply cannot forgive ourselves for. Even if the person we wronged is at peace and has offered us forgiveness we continue to clog up our hearts with guilt.
And then there are our prized possessions. The coats that we love to wear and would never think of giving away. These represent the grudges we hold against those that have wronged us. We bring them out of the closet of our hearts whenever that person comes around. Over time these hurts can start to define us. Bitterness is known to be the most effective hardening agents for our hearts.
How can we prepare on this Pink Candle Sunday?
When mass is ended today you will be invited to go in peace.
You can find this peace by getting rid of your unneeded coats of fear, guilt and bitterness.
When we do this we will free up the room in our hearts to welcome Mary’s new born son into our lives. He can change everything- if we let him in.
With Jesus in our hearts we are in a position to be the hope this world so desperately needs.