The older I get, the more I become convinced that every Christmas has its own flavor, and every Christmas comes with its own gifts. Not the kinds of gifts you wrap and put under the tree, but the kinds of gifts that fill your heart and give you the grace to move into the year ahead.
When I was little, my Christmas enthusiasm could hardly be contained. I kept Advent by opening a door each day on a little cardboard calendar, to see what was underneath. But the picture on the calendar probably wasn’t as important to me as the days passing by. The eagerness of my anticipation was for that moment on Christmas morning, when I’d wake up way earlier than I would on any other day, wake my sisters and parents and go down to open gifts. We would spend those opening moments of the day together, and there was a warmth that came from the love we had for each other. The gift of those Christmases was one of eagerness, they joyfulness of anticipation being fulfilled, and the sharing of love with those who loved me back.
As a teen, I knew a little more about what Christmas meant. Some of our family traditions came to mean more to me: the cookies we baked, visits to family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, going to Mass as a family. There was still a sense of anticipation but it was a little different now. I anticipated time off from school – whether I was in high school or college – and I looked forward to seeing loved ones I hadn’t seen in a while. The gift of those Christmases was singing one more Christmas Carol because Grandma’s new oven wasn’t cooking the turkey as fast as the old one, of enjoying old and new family traditions, and the joy of days spent without papers due or tests to study for.
As a young adult, my faith became more important to me. I was involved in my church and spent many hours practicing music and preparing to celebrate music with the choir I was in. For several of those years, I wrote the mini lessons and carols service that we did before Mass began. There was a busyness of that time and a growing anticipation of being able to celebrate my faith with a community that knew that same faith. It was a time to pull out all the stops and celebrate the Mass with a bit more solemnity and joy. Even at work, there was talk of our traditions both family and religious, and the sharing of belief that Christ was present even in the mundane day-to-dayness of our work. The gift of those Christmases was one of renewed faith, and the joy of celebrating the wonder of the Incarnation – the birth of our God into our world – with people who helped me to grow in that faith.
When I went to seminary, things changed a lot. The anticipation of Advent was held in an environment that was slowly teaching me how to preside in it. I learned more about the traditions of our faith, the vibrancy of Scripture, the poetry and hymnody that made me long to be filled with Christ in new ways. Going to Christmas Mass became a strange, but not unpleasant experience: wondering what it was going to be like to celebrate Christmas as a priest. The gift of those Christmases was a personal growth that helped me to see who I was as God’s son, and who he was calling me to be.
Last year, my first year as a priest, I got to experience the joy of being a priest at Christmas. The days of Advent anticipation were filled with hearing confessions and school programs, and the many things that go on here in the parish. I got to go to not just one Christmas Mass, but three or four! My role had changed not only at Church, but also in my family, and I attended my family Christmas gatherings with, well, exhaustion! The gift of last Christmas was being able to celebrate Christmas by celebrating the Eucharist as a priest.
This year, things are a little different for me. Dad died in May, and so I think the anticipation of Christmas for me has been a little bit weird. I approach this holy day with a little heaviness of heart, with a sense of loss. I never put up the Manger Dad and Mom gave me last year. I didn’t because one of the pieces – the angel – was broken, and Dad was going to help me fix it. We never got around to it, and I didn’t want to open the box and see the missing piece, which for me represents the missing piece of my family this Christmas. I’m not sure what the gift will be this Christmas. I guess none of us can know what the gift will be for us just yet. I’d be tempted to think there won’t be a gift, but only sadness, except that’s not who I am, and certainly that’s not who Dad was. I do have a certain sense of anticipation, and it’s anticipation of the hope that waits for us all.
What kinds of Christmases have you celebrated? You might find some of them are like some of mine, or maybe that you have others. The gifts, I am sure, differ from year to year. Maybe your Christmases have been happy, and maybe you have had the occasional sad one. But there’s always a gift. More specifically, there’s always the gift: Jesus Christ, born into our world, God with us, God our salvation, has come to give us everlasting life.
Pope Benedict says in his encyclical, Spe Salvi that “God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 31).
God’s love reaches us every time we come to this holy place and celebrate the Eucharist. The hope that we have in Christ is the only hope worth waiting for, the only hope that can bring to fruition the desires of our hearts and the anticipation of our souls. And so this Christmas, whatever flavor of Christmas we’re having, the gift – the real gift – is as it has always been, the presence of Christ among us, the eternal life he brings us, and the love that he pours out on us. Perhaps that gift will give us the ability to forge ahead in the year to come and bring the presence of Christ, the light of Christ, to a dark and lonely world.
Because we don’t just celebrate (tonight / today) something that happened two thousand years ago; we celebrate the fact that God is born into our lives and into our world every time we open ourselves up to his forgiveness and renewal, cling to the hope he brings us, and allow him to make us his holy people. When we stand up for the rights of the unborn, the powerless, and the disenfranchised, Christ is born among us and warms up our cold and heartless world. When we reach out to others who are needy or lonely or oppressed, Christ is born among us and gives light to our darkness. When we introduce someone to the Church or witness to our faith by being people of integrity, Christ is born among us and revitalizes a world grown listless in despair. When we receive our Lord in the Eucharist and go forth from this place to love and serve the Lord, Christ is born into a world that desperately needs his presence. Christ is born in every moment when his people allow him to be present through their lives.
On this Christmas, a watching world looks to all of us who call ourselves Christian. Can we make the hope of all the nations present by our living the Gospel? When the world sees that happen, when enough people take notice, maybe all the earth can take part in our singing:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!
On behalf of Fr. Ted and me, Deacon Chuck and Deacon Tom, and all the parish staff, may God bless you and your families this Christmas. May you find Christ in every moment of the coming year