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The joys of Christmas

(The following is the text of Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory’s homily at his Mass on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2023, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.)

My Dearest Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Christmas is obviously a season for joy!  This basilica church is filled with people right now who, for the most part, are content with themselves, aglow with a warm feeling of happiness, filled with a sense of security and thanksgiving, and just brimming over with joy!

Yet I believe that there are actually two very distinct experiences of joy that mark Christmas, and we would all do well to recall the differences! First, there is the joy that children find at Christmas time.   The little ones who are the recipients of the loving generosity of their parents, grandparents, families, and friends; a child’s joy at Christmas is a precious treasure.  There are many good people who believe that Christmas "is really about kids," because it is a season of innocence and surprise, a moment of enthusiasm and wonder.  

The wide eyes of children make this season an occasion for all of us to recall the happy and nostalgic memories of our own childhood. We can remember the warmth of family life in a world that was far simpler, perhaps, than the world that we attempt to understand now as adults. The joy that children find at Christmas is a wonderful experience and it is my prayer that every child present here in this church, the children of your families, the children of our archdiocese will be filled with a rich and exhilarating joy this Christmas.

There is, however, a second type of joy that also belongs to Christmas. It is that joy that occurs when we ourselves become the givers, the providers, and the gift bearers who make others happy because of our generosity. This is the joy of the adult heart, and it far surpasses the joy of childhood. There is a joy that only enters the heart of those who believe that the greatest human treasure is to be found in making others happy. Children generally cannot yet appreciate this mystery. I can remember, as a youngster, being surprised to see how relatively few gifts my parents received, in comparison to the bonanza that was my Christmas, and yet I saw how sincerely happy they were. Only as an adult have I come to understand this second type of joy.

Several weeks ago, I happened upon a wife and husband with a small child in tow. They had just spent a considerable amount of time fulfilling a gift request of a youngster from a poor household.  With great pride they brought that specially wrapped gift to the church’s giving tree for eventual delivery.  They were thrilled to have been able to find that special gift which would brighten the face of an unknown youngster somewhere. Their own hearts had already been brightened by their ability to bring happiness to another person. 

The birth of Jesus is a celebration of the joy of giving and the joy being given.  Today, the entire Christian world comes to see how truly generous is the love of God our Father. Jesus is the gift that brings joy to human hearts, but there is a joy which God alone must experience in knowing that He has made us all so miraculously rich by His generosity. The joys of Christmas are made perfect when the human family spends a few moments of peaceful desire and longing for worldwide reconciliation and peace.

On that first Christmas, shepherds marveled, angels sang, the Magi witnessed a celestial tribute, and Mary sheltered in her arms her Infant Son who was also her God. She felt the joy of being given a gift, but she also experienced the joy of giving her life over completely to God’s will. 

This day as gifts are exchanged in your homes, may you come to know both types of joy. May the gifts you receive from your loved ones thrill your heart with childlike delight. This Christmas, may you also make a gift of your own life to God – it’s the only thing that you possess that God urgently desires. In that way you will understand, like Mary, what it means to both receive and to become a precious gift.

Merry Christmas from the heart to all of you, both here present in the basilica and those viewing online. May your hearts ring out with joy this Christmas day. Amen.