“All God wants is the warm breath of a living soul”: A homily for the Solemnity of the Holy Family

Pope John XXIIIPope John XXIII was canonized this past year. I want us to think back to Christmas 1958, when the world was waiting to see what the new Papa Roncalli was going say at his Christmas Mass. It was the first time a Christmas Mass would be broadcast on the radio waves. He was a peasant pope, and no one expected much from his homily. But then he began to speak.

He asked, “Who represented us at the first Christmas?”  He directed the world’s attention to the manger scene. He said it wasn’t the shepherds that represented us since most of us aren’t farmers. It wasn’t the wise men since most of us are kind of stupid. It wasn’t the angels, as humans can’t be angels. Nope. It was the jackass.  The pope explained himself: “The jackass was always feeling sorry for himself. He felt frustrated and thought his life was too monotonous—meaningless. He was habitually unhappy. He would always walk around with a long face…”

He said that the jackass walked around and found a horse and wished he could be like the horse who could run so fast and was so beautiful, or like the camel who could go days without water, or like the cow who was friendly and could get along with everybody.  But then the jackass kept walking, and he found a baby lying in the manger. He went up to that baby instinctually. He couldn’t resist. And then he began breathing heavily on the baby.

“After a while, the baby reached up and patted the muzzle of the jackass—as if to say: ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for keeping me warm on this cold wintry night.’ Now, for the first time in his life, the jackass was happy. He no longer felt sorry for himself. He had found meaning and purpose in his life, and all his troubles went away.”

Then the pope added: “For that’s the way it is with Almighty God. All he wants is the warm breath of a living soul. You give him that and he will take care of the rest.” He ended his homily: “So Merry Christmas, from one jackass to all you other asses.” hahahaha.

I share this with you on the Solemnity of the Holy Family for good reason. This feast directs our attention to the manger as well.  The Church fathers said that the manger, that stable in Bethlehem that provided the first shelter for the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph….it represents two important families: the family of the Church and our blood families.

The family of the Church. You may remember Fr. Meyer’s big nativity set from the display a few weeks ago. I liked it because it has 200 pieces. There is room for all of us at the stable, in the church. We find our meaning, our place, our happiness, our fulfillment…we find all that in the family of the Church. Sure, like a manger, the Church gets a little messy sometimes, it gets muddy and frustrating and sometimes can be a little dysfunctional, but unlike the stable in front of the rectory, the Lord promises it will never blow over. It will never fall down. It is a family and it is a happy thing to be a part of it.

Our blood families. The stable also, in a way, represents our blood families, the domestic church as the catechism calls the family. It is a humble home, and although it isn’t luxurious, those in it have everything because they have one another. And they have the Lord, who is in the middle of all families. There is a joke about a mother with two sons who were fighting over a cookie. She said, “You know, if Jesus were here, he would give the other person the cookie first.” To which one of the boys said to his brother, “OK, you be Jesus.” But Jesus is in the middle of our families. He was born there on Christmas just as he was born in Bethlehem. We just need to reverence that. Which often means not being donkeys to each other.

Which is all a way of saying what John 23 said: We find our meaning, our purpose, our life in the stable. We find it in the stables of church and blood family, in offering a warm breath of service and of love to one another in those places. In that we find our everything.