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FAITH AT HOME | Good news for crowded churches

Here’s a quick reminder for regular Church-goers.

Many people will join us on Dec. 24 and 25 who don’t regularly come to Mass. They will take our parking spots, our usual pews, our hymnals and our coat hooks.

What fantastic news!

More people crowding in the doors? Not enough chairs to drag up from the basement? Standing room only? If only we had this problem every week.

I’ve stood through jam-packed Christmas Masses, sweating in winter coats, kids whining at my knees. I’ve heard the annoyance, the grumbling and the muttering about “Christmas-Easter Catholics.” But if our churches were this crowded every Sunday, it would be a dream come true. God’s dream come true.

The Incarnation celebrates when God became one of us. God’s love for humanity isn’t limited to the prompt and patient, the properly dressed, the every-Sunday faithful or the people who know the prayers.

Rather, God leaves the 99 to seek one lost sheep — and heaven delights. God sweeps the whole house to find one lost coin — and calls friends and neighbors to rejoice.

So when we celebrate Christmas, whether in church or at home, how will we model our welcome on the abundant, joyful, lavish love of God? “Make room for Christ in the inn of your heart,” we often hear this time of year. Will we also make room for Christ in our parish pew and parking lot, our Christmas party or kitchen table?

Welcoming the stranger is a divine command (Leviticus 19:34). It defines how we will be judged by God (Matthew 25:35). It’s also a basic building block for strong families, healthy communities and faithful churches.

Lucky for those of us who will show up at church for the four Sundays before Christmas, we have the entire season of Advent to prepare for our guests. So let’s teach our kids and grandkids that this is how we celebrate Christmas. By welcoming the stranger. By sliding over to make room for one more. By choosing compassion over comfort. By celebrating humanity, even when people are unpredictable and messy.

Let’s not make the mistake of every innkeeper in Bethlehem, turning away a family no one knew was holy, seeing only scarcity and inconvenience, unwilling and unable to welcome.

Think of someone you know with a gift for hospitality: the host who will always squeeze in one more, the relative who knows how to stretch the soup or the friend who makes strangers feel like guests of honor.

If our homes are places of warm welcome, so our parishes.

Christmas isn’t about our comfort or control — quite the opposite. Christmas celebrates God’s love born among us in the most unlikely circumstances.

So let’s smile and welcome new faces. Let’s park in the back so let our guests have the front. Let’s not grumble if people don’t know the words to the prayers. Let’s offer them our hymnal if we know the songs by heart. Let’s smile at their tired toddlers. Let’s share the sign of peace with strangers, not just our own families.

Maybe our guests will show up again next Sunday if we show them how glad we are to welcome them. Maybe next year they’ll be regulars along with us. Even if they never enter the doors of our church again, if we welcome the stranger as Christ and show them a share of the love we’ve found in our parish home, then we will have celebrated Christmas well.

Fanucci is a mother, writer and director of a project on vocation at the Collegeville Institute in Collegeville, Minn. She is the author of several books, including “Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting,” and blogs at www.motheringspirit.com.

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