The Rev. Bruce Jarboe, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Glen… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
For the Rev. Bruce Jarboe, coming up with a homily for Christmas Mass is both a challenge and an opportunity. He knows that in this time of war and economic anxiety, the holiday might be the only occasion all year that some of his listeners will be visiting a church.
As worshippers pack Holy Trinity Church in Glen Burnie for the best-attended services of the year, the 50-year-old priest will have a chance - not to chide long-absent members of his flock, but to encourage them to nurture their spiritual life.
"Most of us who preach feel a great sense of responsibility to preach well always, but especially when we have such an important message to share and when there's so many people to hear it," said Jarboe, pastor of Holy Trinity and two other parishes in Glen Burnie. He began preparing his homily on Monday by analyzing the Scripture passages to be read at Christmas Mass.
"People who come are perhaps a bit more open, their antennae are a little more receptive, maybe," said the Baltimore native, who is celebrating his 24th Christmas as a priest with three Masses Thursday and today. "And that presents for us a great opportunity to encourage folks to be always a bit more attentive to their spiritual life, and lots of good can come from that."
In the highly liturgical Catholic tradition, the homily - the spoken message delivered after the readings from Scripture and before the celebration of the Eucharist - is the priest's opportunity to communicate his observations and interpretations to his congregation.
The Rev. Tim Kulbicki, dean of the School of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park, says the holiday crowds only raise the stakes.
"The Christmas homily is among the most difficult to prepare," said the Franciscan priest. "Especially for what we in the trade jokingly call the 'C&E Catholics' - the Christmas-and- Easter Catholics. Which are the ones that you're really trying to reach that day, because, frankly, this is the last chance you'll get to talk to them until next Easter."
On Christmas, Kulbicki says, the material itself poses an additional challenge.
"It's the same set of Scriptures every year, and the same story that basically everyone knows," he said. "And the challenge is to take that same set of sameness and do something that engages people's hearts."
One thing to be avoided: chiding those who don't attend Mass regularly. At services before Christmas, Kulbicki said, "I'll gently tell my regular parishioners that, you know, you really do have to be nice to people. They may steal your seat, they may steal your parking place. Don't treat them like second-class citizens.
"You have to be at your best, most hospitable and most welcoming. Because that's when you're really going to be making an impact on people. If people sense that this is a welcoming assembly to worship with, they're more than likely to come back."
At Holy Trinity, Jarboe says, he's happy to see the newcomers.
"It certainly is more crowded," he said. "But it's qualitatively different, too, in a positive way. The more people that are in the pews, there are more voices that are singing, and more voices that are responding to prayer. And that's a really wonderful and moving thing."
Earlier this week, Jarboe reported that his homily had yet to come together. But some themes, including war and recession, were emerging.
"I certainly am aware, as I'm sure that all preachers are aware, that we live in a world where many of our people, those to whom we will be preaching on Christmas, have loved ones that are serving in the military in places far away and at real risk," he said. "We're very aware that our people are living their lives in the context of an economic environment that continues to be very difficult, very anxiety-producing and practically challenging for many of the households that will come to worship."
Coming to terms with broader cultural messages about Christmas is another timely theme. Such messages include the materialism and consumerism that in the past century have commercialized the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
"One reality is that in our culture, Christmas is associated with gift-giving," Jarboe said. "Which is fine. I mean, to share expressions of love with each other is a wonderful and good thing to do. As long as we don't lose perspective that the sharing of gifts as an expression of love is a way of expressing our gratitude to God for God's love of us, made flesh in Christ.
"It's absolutely a joyful time, and it is time to truly be happy and to be merry, but always, too, to keep the largest reason for our happiness in mind, and that is what God has done for us in Christ."