Unwrapping the Gift
Christmas Day: 25th December, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Three siblings left Melbourne years ago, and each went on to do very well in their own line of work. A week before Christmas, on a conference call, strung across the globe, the three siblings discuss the gifts they are sending their elderly mother this year. The oldest daughter, owner of a successful Western Australian mining company says, "I have bought a mansion in Toorak for mother this year." The son, who has built up a chain of European car sales yards also boasts, "I've shipped out the latest model Mercedes for mum; I hope she likes it." The youngest daughter, who has worked as a Missionary in Africa for years, smiles and says, "I have you both beat. You remember how much Mum used to enjoy reading the Bible? And you know that her sight is failing now that she has reached 90. Well, I am sending her a remarkable parrot that recites the entire Bible. It took my team of missionaries 12 years to teach him, day after day. He's one of a kind. Mum just has to name the chapter and verse, and the parrot recites it."
Well, soon after Christmas Mum sends out her thank-you letters: "Dear Sarah," she writes to her oldest daughter, "the mansion you bought for me is far too large. I live in only one room, but I have to keep the whole house clean!"
"Dear Gerald," she writes to her son, "I'm not sure I will pass my driving test this year, and anyway — I must say — I stay at home most of the time now, so I rarely use the Mercedes."
To her youngest child she writes these words: "Dearest Annabelle, you have the good sense to know what your Mother likes these days. I cooked up the chicken you sent for Christmas dinner; it was delicious."
Christmas is about gifts and giving, let's face it. Most of us, younger and older, would probably agree on that one. A few years ago, in a New Zealand newspaper, a variety of church leaders were asked to define the true meaning of Christmas. The one that really stuck with me was a reflection by Cardinal Tom Williams, the then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Wellington. He wrote, quite simply, that Christmas is a gift with many layers. A bit like pass-the-parcel, it needs unwrapping.
The outer layer he called "the supermarket Christmas". We all experience this. Many of us wish we didn't, especially when trying to find that last present for our niece who has everything, and battling with the hoards of people in the shopping malls. It is easy to get tired and cynical about this outer layer, but then my heart melts when I see the joy on my granddaughter's face when she receives that toy she was so hoping for; or the tears as a new member of the Lazarus Centre opens one of the few presents that anyone has bothered to give him in years. Giving takes practice, and there's plenty of practising going on at this time of year. I think that's a good thing!
The next layer is what Cardinal Williams terms "the Charles Dickens Christmas". This is the traditional, European flavour to our festivities that still underlies so much of what we do. It's about turkeys and hams, mince pies and mistletoe. But as well as the superficial trappings, the Charles Dickens Christmas comes with familiar morality tales that shape our thinking about the season. When I get grumpy, or fed up with all the frenzy of Christmas, it's tempting to have a moan to anyone who will listen: "I hate Christmas". But then that wonderful character of Scrooge comes to mind, and I dutifully repent and do my best to recapture the "Christmas spirit".
The third layer of the Williams Christmas is "the Christmas Crib". I love the St Peter's Christmas crib. We traditionally process at Midnight Mass with the baby Jesus, although that caused a problem this year at the earlier Children's Mass. One of the children was quite disturbed that Jesus wasn't yet in the crib. "Where is he?" She was asking those around her. She looked high and low, but baby Jesus was nowhere to be found. He was hiding in the sacristy ready for Midnight Mass.
The Christmas crib is important. Through it we enter a deeper level of the meaning of Christmas. The traditions of the church have kept the stories of Jesus' birth, life, and death, alive and potent for two millenia. These incredible gems of truth and wisdom that we have inherited cannot pass from generation to generation unaided. It is the faithful souls who gather each Sunday, all of us who meet around the crib at Christmas, we are responsible for keeping the fires of faith burning. Without the traditions we keep alive there literally would be no Christmas.
The final layer Cardinal Williams describes as the deepest and the simplest. He also notes that it is the hardest to live in. This layer is about the person of Christ; not just the historical figure of Jesus who was born somewhere in the Middle East around 4 BCE, but the Christ of faith. The Christ figure inspires us to dig deep into ourselves, through prayer and worship and honest reflection. He also motivates us to take a stand for peace and justice. To take action where we see intolerance and oppression.
It is an elusive core to the meaning of Christmas, which is why it is hard to live in. We can't buy it or possess it or make it, as we can most of the other layers. The Christ of faith can sometimes feel close and real, but just as quickly that sense of intimacy with God can disappear, and we are left feeling abandoned and without direction. Biblical scholar, Robert Funk, describes this as catching "glimpses" of the real Jesus. This Jesus comes and goes as he pleases, and not at our command. But it is in seeking that we find, in knocking that the door opens.
So I encourage each of you to unwrap the gift you have been given in the Christ-child. Enter deeply into the mystery of Christmas, and don't think you have finished unwrapping the gift when you get to Boxing Day. Unwrapping the gift is an all-year-round activity.
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.