At more weddings than I can recall, I’ve included in the homily a story I heard by chance on the radio many years ago and which I have ever since considered important and worth remembering and sharing with others. It was an interview of the actor, Robert Mitchum, who began in his characteristically candid way by telling about his undisciplined life as a young man. He said he bounced from one menial job to another — everything from stevedoring to dishwashing and dozens of others in between. He was arrested more than once during those crazy years, jailed, and even did time on a chain gang in Georgia for a drug conviction.
Somehow coming to his senses, he made his way to Hollywood, applied himself as never before, and launched his uniquely successful and stable acting career in the movies.
When the interviewer asked him if he was married, I expected – as I think most other listeners must have — to hear him answer that he had been married a half dozen times and was currently divorced from his last wife. But he didn’t say that at all; instead, he said, with what sounded to me like humble, quiet pride, that he had loved and been married to one woman, his wife, for over thirty years.
The interviewer, expressing what had to be the astonishment of the audience, then asked, “Well, given the wild, nomadic early life you’ve just described, how in the world did you ever manage to keep a loving and faithful marriage together for so many years?”
There was a pause, which suggested to me that he was smugly taking a drag on his ever-present cigarette, after which he replied in his trademark tone and cadence, “I don’t know. Maybe it was just mutual forbearance.” The interviewer said, “Doesn’t sound very romantic.”
And then came the memorable punch line: “No, you’re wrong. It’s been very romantic. What I mean is that neither of us ever stopped believing that the other would be a better person tomorrow.”
It must be 40+ years since I heard that and began to appreciate it. Actually, in an “unchurchy” way, it’s a powerful statement of what this season of Advent is and what the essence of our Christian life is: waiting for, and working toward, the ever-fuller coming of Christ in ourselves and in others.
I’ve been at the festive gatherings of three branches of my own family over the past few weeks. In the midst of the eating and drinking and conversing and laughing, it was obvious that the goodness and love of Jesus were very much there because we were present to each other and were putting aside whatever word or happening may have separated us in the past and were expecting instead to find the good, decent, loving person in each of us. Which, if you trace it to its ultimate meaning and origin, is to say that we were eagerly open to the Christ in each of us. That’s not pious exaggeration; it comes from Jesus himself, who said that to know him one had only to know any of his followers.
Let’s say again that our Christian tradition holds that there are three comings of Christ celebrated in the season of Advent: 1) his birthday: Christmas, we call it; 2) in some way, his coming at the end of time, when creation is complete and human society has finally become God’s kingdom on earth, to use a time-honored old term; and 3) his taking form in each individual person in this earthly life we presently share.
At the Baptism of the newly committed Christian, we used to say, and still may, I suppose, “May you grow to full maturity in Christ.” That is our one and common vocation: to take on the mind, the heart, the spirit, the values of Jesus. Our lives will have been successful, not by virtue of the dollars we’ve acquired or the fame we’ve achieved, but by the extent to which this likening to Jesus has been accomplished.
I wish you a good journey to the stable.