The carol titled "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" touches the powerful yearning we feel at this time. As such, it evokes nostalgia for things past, and that is all to the good, although there is more, much more to Christmas.
In our close-knit family of eight sons and two daughters, every Christmas found us scattered all over the country, in college, military service or jobs. But we made great efforts to come home at that time, even though sometimes we scarcely had enough for the train or bus fare.
We came back not in expectation of sumptuous gifts, for we were poor and there was no gift exchange. And though we looked forward to the traditional foods my mother cooked, there was a stronger pull. In the glow of my mother’s eyes, we saw an unconditional love for each of us that we did not experience in our everyday lives away from home.
Similarly, at Mass on Christmas Day, we see worshippers who were not there for the rest of the year.
Something in this season brings them back.
Perhaps they are driven by the need to experience, however briefly, something that is now lost: faith, ideals, innocence or the energy to persevere.
Unfortunately, all too often it is a pit-stop return, akin to that of a relative who comes home just for the Christmas Day dinner, shares little and walks out as soon as it is over.
The person who comes to Mass only at Christmas or Easter has little chance of rekindling the ashes of a once robust faith.
It is good at this time to look back to a time when our ideals were untarnished and our hopes undimmed by the hard times we have experienced.
Also, it is good to try to recover the sense of community that our nation once enjoyed, when comity and compromise bonded us together politically, when the economic system was not overbalanced in favor of the rich.
Yet, Christmas is more about the future than the past.
When the angels proclaimed peace on earth to men of goodwill, they were talking about a peace never before experienced, human unity and love never before achieved.
The Scriptures give us glimpses of that future, which no eye has seen and no ear has heard.
That is also the promise of Christmas to those who are faithful.
The late Robert F. Kennedy once said: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. … I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"
Why not have a society where the unemployed, the sick and the poor are provided for?
Why not an economic system that is fair and just for both rich and poor?
Why not a world that is free of terrorism and hunger?
Yes, why not?
Christmas challenges us as individuals to find in our inner selves the vision and strength to be more loving and confident of God’s love; as a community, to embrace and unify myriad cultures in our midst; as a nation, to generate the faith that united we can overcome our crises to create a better society.
No matter our perspective, Christmas makes clear that we are only sojourners. Our homeland is not here. Our wealth is not here. We cannot take with us whatever we gained here. Our destiny is elsewhere.
However dimly we perceive it, our primal yearning at Christmas is to be reunited with the eternal source of love and peace. Only then will we truly return home.