Monday, December 24, 2007

'Tis A Gift To Receive

Christmas 2007

Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

I Done It For Love

Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:

use the cracks in the floor to feel the cold.

Use crockery in order to feel the hunger.

And to feel the desert – but the desert is everywhere.

Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,

the fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools and stuff;

and imagine, as you towel your face in the towel’s folds,

the bundled up Infant. And Mary and Joseph.

Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession

as they make for the cave, or rather three beams closing in

and in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink of a cowbell;

(but in the cerulean thickening over the Infant

no bell and no echo of bell: He hasn’t yet earned it.)

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded

immensely in distance, recognizing Himself in the Son

of Man: homeless, going out to Himself in a homeless one.

1989 – Joseph Brodsky, translated by Seamus Heaney

As this poem by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky reminds us, Christmas calls us to imagine: imagine what it may have been like in that stable or cave in the back streets of Bethlehem. Imagine what the caravan of the magi must have really been like traversing much of the ancient world. Imagine a God choosing to enter into the most mundane of settings in this world 2000 years ago – arriving homeless, naked, vulnerable, utterly dependent upon the creation and the creatures God’s own self had marked as his own so many thousands of millions of years before. Imagine that as Martin Luther reminds us, the wood of the crib is the hard wood of the cross. Imagine the darkness in that cave, and needing to strike a match to even see Mary and Joseph, and between them, the baby.

The mystery of the Incarnation – God choosing to become one of us, Emmanuel, God with us – is a mystery that calls upon the infinite depths of our imagination to reflect on the incredible Love that is God: A love so deep, so broad, so endless in God’s desire to be in communion with God’s own beloved people, you and me and all persons throughout the world and throughout all time.

The hymn we just sang (114), “’Twas in the moon of winter time…” is another kind of imagining ( It is the very first Christmas Carol written on the North American continent. It was written by a Saint, Father Jean de Brebeuf, a French Jesuit priest who lived among the Huron People in the early 1600’s. Brebeuf was both a missionary and linguist. He wrote the carol in the Huron language as a gift to the Huron people – wishing to make the story of the birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God, accessible for First Nation people, Fr. Brebeuf revisioned the song in such a way with cultural references to broken bark, rabbit skin and forest hunters, such that it still resonates with many First Nation people to this day. The Anglicized version we just sang, translated in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton, continues to be a centerpiece of Christmas caroling among Canada’s leading aboriginal singers. Imagine what a gift Fr. Brebeuf gave to the now nearly extinct Huron tribe (extinguished by an Iroquois attack encouraged by the British who were after control of the French claimed territory) – Fr. Brebeuf gave them personal knowledge of God’s love for them in the Christ child in a telling of the story that would be very much be their own.

I recently ran across another story of another sort of Christmas gift.

“In 1980, the day before Christmas, Richard Ballinger’s mother in Anderson, South Carolina, was busy wrapping packages and asked her young son to shine her shoes. Soon, with the proud smile that only a seven-year-old can muster, he presented the shoes for inspection. His mother was so pleased, she gave him a quarter.

“On Christmas morning as she put on her shoes to go to church, she noticed a lump in one shoe. She took it off and found a quarter wrapped in paper. Written on the paper in a child’s scrawl were the words, “I done it for love.”

(Brennan Manning, Watch For The Light [Plough Publishing, Farmington, PA:2001] p. 202)

Imagine and remember for just a moment the very best Christmas gift you have ever received. Perhaps something you had wished for, but had never told a soul except Santa Claus in that letter you sent to the North Pole. And then it happened: there it was under the tree Christmas morning!

No doubt it was a morning of mixed emotions. First there is the stunned surprise. Is it really true? Is this wonderful gift mine? Then followed by a sort of embarrassment of not really knowing what to do next. And embarrassment because you know things are really tight, and have a fleeting suspicion of what the gift cost and that it really had not come from the North Pole.

But there was also a welling up of unutterable joy and gratitude – which appears to have lasted because here and now that Christmas morning is swirling up out of unconscious memory so many many years later.

Each of us can test that same experience tomorrow – surprise, embarrassment, joy and gratitude. The special gift you receive will be a surprise. You will gasp. You will draw in your breath. You will look with awe as you open the diamond just like the one in the DeBeers advertisement, the scarf carefully knitted by a six-year-old, a message of gratitude from someone who had found strength and spiritual help here at St. Peter’s and no longer lives here.

Then, is it embarrassment or a sense of humble unworthiness? Why me? How much effort and secrecy and skill went into that six-year-old’s green and red and orange knitted scarf? How many hours of research went into finding that out-of-print first edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Poetry? Why all this, for me?

But finally, joy and gratitude! It is as if those tight bands about the heart (which most of us know) are unloosed. There may even be a tear or two. I hope there will be at least a hug, of genuine, warming, bear-type quality. And a final deep sigh of utter completion. It will be the kind of fulfillment which allows for a new beginning, facing the afternoon of Christmas Day or even the twelve months ahead with newly invigorated spirit and life!

We too often emphasize Christmas as a season of giving. Too many Christmas cards underline those words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Words that come from the Book of Acts, not any of the four Gospels. And this is true – we must never forget.

Yet, more than anything at all, Christmas is also a time to receive a gift, a wonderful truth.

We will each of us receive some special gift tomorrow/today from someone who loves us. More wonderful even, we will each of us, singly and together, receive a gift from someone who loves us even more, from God.

In any of our lives there is a manger, now doubtless empty, cold, malodorous, surrounded by beasts – the heartbreaks, tragedies and disappointments of our lives. But it is there that you will find the child, newborn, if you will look on him and be open to receive God’s gift.

It can come to you this Christmas, that gift, that birth within you of the Christ child, when you become aware of and touch, perhaps only fleetingly, the whole and complete person God intended you to be, that God intends you to be. It can happen when you are alone, or it can happen when you are in company. It can happen right here, at this present Bethlehem, at this Holy Table, when and where you receive tangible evidence, bread and wine, God’s Body and God’s Blood, God’s own life given to you and for you.

As in receiving any real gift, your response will be astonishment, humility, and a deep restorative joy. To which we can only say, Gracias, Gratia, Thank you, Eucharistia, Grace!

If you find yourself asking God, “Why me? Why us? Why for all the world” know that the answer will be and has always been, “I done it for love.”

Be open tonight/today to receive that gift, open-handed, with an open heart unbound, offering nothing but your need, your empty manger. Centuries of experience assure you that God’s gift is being offered: God’s Son, born within you.

Arise like the shepherds and go out into the world with astonishment, humility and joy! Respond in whatever language you may know – Thank you, Gratia, Eucharistia! Your Gratitude will show forth as a light for all the world to see, God is love – God’s Son is Love incarnate.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

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