Midnight Mass: 24th December, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
An elderly and somewhat eccentric friend of my parents from New Zealand, sent me a delightful Christmas letter this year, telling of her Advent adventures while out Christmas shopping in Auckland. I'd like to read some of it to you.
Dear Hugh, I must tell you of the most wonderful way that God blessed me last week when I was out doing my Christmas shopping. At church a lovely man was visiting from the United States, and he gave me a bumper sticker for my little car. It says "Toot if you love Jesus". Well, I put it on my bumper, and went out shopping with my grandson. We were waiting at the traffic lights, and I was just thinking how wonderful God has been to me over the years, when someone tooted at me. I was so excited, and turned around to wave at my dear brother in Christ. Then someone else tooted too, and before long there were toots ringing out from nearly every car. It was wonderful. There we were, in the middle of all the Christmas rush, taking time to praise the Lord together. Then the man behind me got out of his car. It was so sweet, I'm sure he was wanting to come over and pray with me. I think he was Australian, because he said something about Sydney Beach, I couldn't quite hear. Then he gave me a strange wave, with just one finger in the air. I'd not seen it before, but asked my grandson what it meant. He said it was a Hawaiian wave. So I gave the man a Hawaiian wave back; he got very excited, and my grandson was filled with the joy of the Lord too. Well, just then I noticed that the lights had turned green. They must have been green for a while, because I was the only car that managed to slip through in time. There were still one or two dear souls tooting as I drove away, so I gave them one last Hawaiian wave out of the window. I do love Christmas.
Christmas is a stressful time of the year: heightened family expectations, financial pressures, deadlines, excessive consumption of alcohol. These can all combine into a lethal cocktail. You may have seen the disturbing "road rage" video that was all over the news and YouTube last week, and news of the Protective Services Officer who was bludgeoned outside State Parliament the week before. The Victorian police report 20-30% more domestic violence call-outs at Christmas than on a normal weekend. Going by statistics from previous years they expect to attend an incident of family violence every ten minutes over the next day few days. Sadly none of this is new either. Headlines from 26th December 1936 make sadly familiar reading: "Quarrels on Christmas Day: Melbourne's Record for Street Brawls — 8 deaths in accidents." The paper then proceeds to report on a plethora of street fights, road accidents and domestic violence.
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6, KJV).
Just as examples of overindulgence and vice tend to peak at this time of year, so too do genuine unheralded acts of virtue. I think I have the best job in the world, because I get to see these examples of human kindness all the time. Like the volunteers who turned up this morning to feed the homeless at the Lazarus Centre, and will do the same tomorrow morning and every day of the year. Like the mountain of gifts for the poor that have poured in from so many kind folks, from the parishioner on a fixed income to the State Parliament Christmas Tree Appeal. Like the army of workers, servers, liturgists and singers, who have been beavering away at St Peter's Eastern Hill, and churches all over the world, to get ready for today's/tonight's proclamation of the Christmas gospel to a broken world.
Violence and the other vices are not "human nature" or "just the way things are." They are human choice, and bad choice at that. Our religious traditions all have an abundance of resources designed to nurture virtuous living, designed to strengthen a spiritual approach to life. The discipline of regular worship draws us beyond ourselves; a routine of prayer and meditation changes the way our brain is wired and improves our human wellbeing; benevolence is not only beneficial for the recipient, it blesses the giver and is contagious, shaping our local and even global communities for the good.
But do you know what I think is the greatest gift that our faith traditions give? Story. The Christmas story is transformative. We come, we listen, we engage, we are changed, and we effect change in our world. I'd like to close with a Christmas story by Joy Cowley. It is called "The Giving."
With such eagerness we carry our gifts towards the place of the newborn King. Look at us! We are like guests hurrying to a wedding, and I cannot help but note that my golden gift is as large and finely wrapped as any I have seen. At a point in the road, not far from the stable, I am stopped by an angel who wants to know what I am carrying. She is tall, quite stern, a security guard I suppose. It pleases me to tell her that my package contains the treasure of a lifetime to be given to the Holy One.
"Open it," she says.
"What? Do you know how long it took me to wrap this? Or what the wrapping cost? If you're an angel, you'll already know the contents."
"Open the parcel," she says, folding her arms and firmly straddling the path.
I am reluctant, but I have no choice. Still, once the wrapping is removed, there are some fine treasures to display. I point them out to her. A lifetime of regular church attendance. Tithing for the poor. Hours spent visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved. A mountain of cakes baked for fundraising stalls. Letters to the newspaper on moral issues. Marches for peace and justice. No one could be ashamed of such gifts, they are indeed fit for a king.
There is no expression on the angel's face. She looks at each in turn and says: "What else have you got?"
"What do you mean — what else?" I am angry at her lack of enthusiasm.
"Do you realize what sacrifice went into these?"
"He does not need sacrifice," she says. "Come now. There must be another gift." I hesitate.
"Well yes, there is. But what I have just shown you is my finest gold. The frankincense — if I can call it that — is quite ordinary, hardly fit for the occasion."
"Let me see it."
With some embarrassment I take from my luggage a plainly wrapped parcel, hastily tied with some gardening twine. It is clumsily put together and when I pull the string the contents spill out over the path. Nothing spectacular. A sandcastle built with one of the children. A blackened saucepan from a birthday dinner that miraculously survived a small fire. Toast crumbs, teaspoons, a teddy bear and a small tractor found when making the big bed. Silly ghost stories told on the beach under a full moon. Patti at her first communion, wanting to know how Jesus got from her stomach into her heart. The holiday the tent fell down. The pear tree we planted on the grave of the pet mouse.
The angel seems interested. She looks closely at everything and smiles. Then she picks up four shoes and a bottle of fragrant oil.
"What about these?" My embarrassment intensifies. "My partner and I, we massage each other's feet."
The angel gently puts them back.
"Beautiful," she says. "All of it is a beautiful gift."
She stands tall again and looks at me with clear eyes that seem as deep as forever. "Now for the third package."
I shake my head. "I'm sorry. There is no third gift."
"Everyone has myrrh to offer," she says.
"Not I. Myrrh is the bitter herb of death. It has not been a part of my experience. You see I have been extraordinarily lucky; I don't seem to have the problems that plague other poor souls. My life has been just one blessing after another."
"Myrrh is the herb of death — and resurrection," says the angel. "It is necessary for the Christmas journey. Without it the stable is empty."
I don't understand what she is talking about. "Sorry," I repeat. "Gold and frankincense, yes, but myrrh, no. Now will you please stand aside and let me pass?"
"Why don't we look?" says the angel, indicating my luggage.
"All right then. Look!" I throw it open at her feet. "See? Not a drop of myrrh in sight!"
"What's this?" she says.
"What's what?" She is pointing to a half-hidden bundle wrapped in stained newspaper.
"I don't know. I haven't seen it before. It must belong to someone else." But as I say it, my stomach clenches and my skin turns cold.
"Open it," says the angel.
I step back. "No. I can't. It's not — not mine."
"You must open it," the angel insists; her voice is soft.
My hands shake as I pick up the package and begin the unwrapping. Yes, it is all there. I thought I had forgotten these things, or put them away forever; but no, they are present and as alive as ever. The childhood cries that went unheard. The playground taunts. The teacher who disliked me. The struggles and rejections.
The pain wells up now as real as it was then, and my vision becomes blurred. I want to put the parcel down.
"Please continue," says the angel.
I already know what will be in the next layer. The hurt of the child within the adult. Bereavements. Losses. Failures. Feelings of inadequacy. Criticisms I could not handle. Recurring nightmares. Unspoken fears.
I am crying now, and I can't go on.
"How can you call it a gift?" I shout at the angel. "It's all so — so ugly!"
"No, no!" she says. "It is all unborn resurrection, and resurrection is the beauty of God!"
The next layer is worse. It reveals all the hurts I have inflicted on others, from careless gossip to deliberate betrayals. There are angry words that could not be taken back, judgments that shut out people who did not share my beliefs or lifestyle. Arrogance. Intolerance. Condescension.
I sit down in the middle of the path.
"Come," says the angel. "There is only a little more."
But she is wrong. There is no more. The last layer of wrapping reveals nothing but darkness. Every part of my life has been surrendered and now there is simply this tomb, this emptiness.
"You are very close," whispers the angel.
I don't reply, for I am lost in the darkness. But wait! In the depth of the night, I discover a light that grows as I gaze at it.
"What do you see?" the angel asks.
The light is increasing and seems to be a living presence. My heart rises like a phoenix. "It's — it is — a star!"
"The truth of myrrh," says the angel. "Keep looking."
The light expands to fill my being with a beauty that is both as new as life and as old as eternity. How could I not have known this? I gaze in wonder, hushed with awe. For there, in the center of all its brilliance, is the newborn Christ.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.