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Dec 18
Welcome the stranger

At the risk of sounding a bit like my parents, Christmas is upon us again. So soon!

The pace of the days picks up at this time of year. The to-do lists get a bit longer and our tempers get a bit shorter. It is an annual irony of Advent, leading into the festivities of Christmas, that the worst character traits of our society come to light. And many of us find peaceful respite in the Mass – remembering the reason for the season, as they say.

I tend to be a back, left pew Catholic in my current parish. I attend Mass, sometimes the Vigil, sometimes the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass but most often the 11 a.m. Mass, after getting some early morning things checked off my list for the day.

It's a testament to our desire for routine, being creatures of habit, that we head for the same familiar space every time we visit our parishes. When I retake the approximate piece of pine that I have been visiting in the pews for a couple of years now, I take comfort in seeing the same faces week in and week out, and shaking the same hands, offering that peace be with them.

There is comfort in the ritual, the routine of seeing the altar from the same angle and glancing at the same stained glass window that has been beside you every week.

But I need to remember… and we all need to remember… another part of Christmas. Thankfully, by the grace of God, our churches will be full to the rafters again this year, as they have been for more than 175 years in the Archdiocese of Toronto. You shouldn't be surprised. It happens every year.

And, this is our chance to shine as Christians.

This is the time of year, when Catholics who haven't been with us regularly throughout the year and those visiting us from other places will join us. Many feel hurt or abandoned or disillusioned with the Church but they come back at Christmas. Let's welcome them warmly, with smiles and genuine friendliness. No matter where they have been throughout the year, their hearts are warm to the message of our faith when they come and we should do all we can to ensure they want to return again soon, hopefully next Sunday.

Christmas is the time we should create the most welcoming websites (so they remember where to go and at what time), the friendliest ushers (reminding us that our jackets don't need a space beside us) and the most compelling homilies of the year (so father's voice echoes in our heads, along with dancing sugar plums). This is the time when we can help people remember all the reasons they belong with us throughout the year.

This is the time when we should readily welcome the strangers among us.

And, if it means that my back, left pew is full at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I'll try to remember to smile at the people keeping my seat warm as I find a place to sneak into a pew beside a family's pile of coats. Then, we will all celebrate, together, the blessings we have received with the birth of Jesus Christ.

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