I have confessed before, from this very spot and on this very day, that I have a fair amount of Scrooge in me. My problem is that I don’t like shopping, and it’s hard to avoid shopping in the weeks before Christmas.
At this point, my long-suffering wife buys virtually all of the gifts that come from “us.” She’s even gotten in the habit of buying a present for herself that is theoretically from me in order to make sure she gets at least one decent gift. It’s a sad comment on my Christmases past. Sadly, tomorrow is not likely to be any better.
I assume the practice of exchanging gifts is inspired by the wise men who follow the star to Bethlehem, pay homage to the Christ child, and give the holy family gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I have always resented the wise men as a result.
We’ll get to the wise men and their gifts in two Sundays. In our reading for today, the people who show up in Bethlehem, the people who celebrate Christ’s birth, the people who represent us in the story, are the shepherds. The shepherds are great. At least in the gift department, they set a nice low bar.
On that first Christmas, the shepherds were going about their business tending sheep, when angels showed up to tell them Christmas had already started. The long-awaited Savior was already born. The shepherds needed to get to the city of David right now. No time for a lot of fancy preparation. My kind of Christmas!
But can you really visit the child celebrated by angels, not to mention visiting his great saint parents, empty-handed? I imagine the shepherds fretting. Maybe I am just projecting. But I picture them talking together.
We should go—an angel told us to! But who are we to visit the Messiah, the one our people have been waiting for all these centuries? If we do go, what should we wear? What do we say? What can we bring? Most importantly, can we take a bath first? Shepherds could be pretty stinky!
And the big question behind all the other questions: How do we do this thing that no one in all of human history has ever done? How does one pay a visit to God incarnate in the form of a newborn baby?
In the end, as we know, they do go to seek the Christ child. And, inevitably, they go just as they are. Hold that thought.
How about us? How do we greet God incarnate on this Christmas Eve? On any day, for that matter?
I worry that we sometimes lose sight of just how big that question is. It’s easy to get so used to the idea that God is with us that we take God’s presence for granted. Or maybe we can’t quite imagine God being with us at all, so God begins to seem irrelevant.
But on this day, we hear the choir of angels announcing the good news of great joy to the shepherds. We travel with the shepherds to the Bethlehem. We see the child lying in the manger. And we know that that same child, in the form of our resurrected Lord, is here with us now, as we gather in his name.
So, what can we offer Christ as we enter more consciously into His presence? What do we need to do? What gift can we give to the Lord of all things?
I think about the gifts I most value. My preferences have changed over time.
When I was a child, I wanted stuff, and lots of it. I liked bright, shiny, plastic things, and I relied on Santa to come through for me every Christmas.
Over time, stuff came to matter a little less. By my teens, what I enjoyed most about Christmas was the food. We’d have a big meal with my grandmother on Christmas Eve, a big breakfast the next morning in the middle of opening gifts, and another big meal with my other grandparents later that day. In the best years, my mother made a chess pie just for me. I’d eat the whole thing myself within twenty-four hours. It was good to have a youthful metabolism!
When I had children of my own, what I loved about Christmas changed again. It revolved around Benjamin and Nicholas. At first, that meant it was back to shiny toys. A few years later, it was food again. We’re still kind of in that phase.
But since Benjamin and Nicholas left home, my wants have become clearer and simpler. I just want to gather with family.
Until this year, I took for granted family gatherings at least of the four of us. Of course, we would be together on Christmas.
But this year COVID intervened, so it wasn’t clear either son could come home. Here they are, having both taken negative COVID tests in the last 48 hours. I took one too, just to be on the safe side. But for the first time since they were born, I had to face the real prospect of a Christmas without my children.
That prospect was clarifying. I don’t care if we have a Christmas feast. I don’t care if my children come bearing gifts. I don’t even care if they are clean, although I am happy to report that they are. I just want to be with them. Their presence is the only gift I really want.
Back to the shepherds. God’s angels told the shepherds to visit the Christ child not because they could offer Christ stuff or food. What God wanted from them, what God wanted them to offer Christ, was themselves, their presence and their love.
God wants the same from us. Like the shepherds, we come to Christ as we are. We want to bring gifts, but what can we give to God that God doesn’t already have? Nothing. Nothing, that is, except our hearts, our devotion, our presence, our love.
On this day, we celebrate the fact that God loves us enough to take on flesh, to become one of us, to live and to die among us. God’s presence in Jesus Christ is the greatest gift we could ever receive, the gift of God Himself.
In return, God invites us to come to Christ, to come to Christ as we can and as we are, relying on God’s love to make up the difference between what we are and what God deserves from us.
The good news of this season, the good news of great joy, is that God’s love is enough. God welcomes us as we are. Thanks be to God! Alleluia, alleluia! Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan