December 24, 2022 – 7 PM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 9:1-6 | Psalm 96:1-3;11-13
Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Every year for the past thirty years, starting in nineteen ninety-three, the first Christmas we were together in person, around the first of November, Deacon Sharon has asked me what I want for Christmas. Yes, there will be a few surprises, but as the very loving wife she is, Deacon Sharon wants to make me happy. Of course, I want to make her happy at Christmas as well, so I ask her the same question: “What do you want for Christmas?” The usual answer I get is “Jewelry.”
Since the day after Thanksgiving, the commercial world has been lambasting the airwaves and plastering the Internet with popup ads touting the latest in video games, cell phones, clothing, toys, cars, and just about anything and everything to appeal to our material instincts. The advertising is, of course, devoid of anything related to the birth of Jesus, who, according to the repeated trite phrase, is the reason for the season.
The custom of Christmas gift-giving is a Christian tradition widely practiced worldwide. However, it is not exclusive to Christianity. Several other religions mark the end of the secular year with a similar custom, such as the Jewish festival of lights known as Hanukkah, which Jesus himself celebrated, or the Hindu celebration of Pancha Ganapati in honor of Lord Ganesha, which celebrates the Winter Solstice. Each of these holidays has profound meanings which we all can share with one another.
To Christians, the gifts given at Christmas symbolize the tributes to baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men after his birth during the story of the Nativity. The Bible’s New Testament describes the three kings, by tradition named Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, journeying to the location of Jesus’s birth by following a star and presenting him upon their arrival with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
However, the tradition of gift-giving extended long before the founding of Christianity, with roots in the festivals of the ancient Romans — in particular, the festival of Saturnalia, where thanks were given to the bounty provided by the agricultural God Saturn.
Saturnalia was celebrated about the same time we celebrate Christmas. The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in three-twelve A-D signaled the beginning of the end of pagan celebrations in the Empire, but early religious leaders couldn’t simply ban the popular Saturnalia, fearing backlash. They used many of the traits of the festival when establishing Christmas, a rival feast that would take Saturnalia’s place but commemorate a Christian occasion: the birth of Jesus. The exchange of gifts was probably one of the traditions carried over from the old feast of Saturnalia to the new feast of Christmas.
I will certainly enjoy, appreciate and receive with great gratitude whatever Deacon Sharon gives me for Christmas, and I am sure all of you will feel the same way about gifts you receive from your loved ones. But the all-encompassing materialism of Christmas obscures the most precious gift of all: Jesus himself.
Jesus is God’s unique gift to us. Nothing we give or receive at Christmas can match Jesus.
Jesus is the world’s first Christmas gift.
If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was for Savior. That’s what Jesus was, is, and always will be.
What is a Savior?
Throughout Advent, we have been singing about how, in Jesus, “Our salvation is drawing near.” In my homily a few weeks ago, I touched on salvation. I mentioned that in traditional Christianity, the Church taught the Four Last Things of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The upshot of this way of thinking was that if you lived a good life, you would go to Heaven, or if you lived a bad life, you would go to Hell. Whether you were good or bad meant whether you obeyed or disobeyed some set of rules, found for Catholics in the tradition of the Church, and for Protestants found in the Bible. As all of you well know, I profoundly disagree with that eschatological vision.
I proclaimed that here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, we do not preach a judgmental God but a loving God who wants the best of everything for everyone, no matter who you are. That is who God is. Would you really want God to be anything else? The people who preach a judgmental God are usually the same people who are judgmental towards others, an idea quite the opposite of what Jesus taught.
We have in our world what Jesus taught because Jesus was incarnated in the flesh among humanity as a human person. God did not send Jesus as a body to be sacrificed as the temple priests burnt animals on their altars. God gave us Jesus as a symbol of life, not death, not someone sent to die but to rise from the grave. Jesus is God’s gift to us who brought life to the world.
The Gift of Jesus holds its value for all eternity. Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving. The Gift of Jesus never expires. There is no “use-by” date stamped on Jesus. He won’t go bad or spoil, and you won’t have to ever throw him out. Neither does he ever go out of style. There is no need to “update” him or trade him in for a newer model.
Every generation needs a Redeemer.
Every generation needs a Savior to lift them out of sin and into the righteousness of God. J
Jesus is one gift that will never lose its value or worth. Jesus is the perfect gift!
Why? God sent Jesus to establish God’s kingdom, a place where what Jesus taught is a reality and not just a dream. The teachings of Jesus can be boiled down to two ideas: love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Those two great commandments are the best practical gifts humanity has ever received. But how does that play out on the real-world level at Christmas?
As we all know, God moves in mysterious ways and through unlikely people. In my daily review of Facebook, I came across a meme that originated with Charity M. Richey-Bentley, a professional horsewoman in Sterret, Alabama. While she is not a trained theologian, Charity nonetheless shared some very deep thoughts about the gifts the world really needs at Christmas. Her Christmas list is a light shining in the darkness.
While she may not have intended to do it, Charity’s Christmas list rejects the godless ways and worldly desires of this world and postulates for us the kinds of Christmas gifts that will actualize what loving God and neighbor really means. Yes, the two do go together because God created your neighbor in His image, so when you love your neighbor, you love God at the same time. Charity’s Christmas list shows us what the appearance of God among us looks like.
Charity tells us that she was around a large group of people sharing what they wanted for Christmas. Each of them began their desire with the words, “I want.” Charity did, too, but her list was unique. It did not contain her desires for anything but what she wanted for the welfare of people other than herself. That’s quite a contrast to the Christmas lists of most Americans. Here’s what she said she wanted. I will use the first-person singular pronouns because what she wants is also what I want.
“I want the hungry to have food.” As I have often preached, food is a human right that should not depend on how much money you have. The world produces enough food to feed everyone. The problem is one of distribution. Simply feed the people.
“I want the homeless to be housed.” Let’s stop regulating and litigating housing. Zoning, environmental regulations, and building codes are the unholy Trinity adored by neighborhood groups, lobbyists, and unions. While ostensibly, they may have a salutary purpose, on a practical level, they put people on the street. Simply house the people.
“I want the sick to be healed.” Like food and housing, healthcare is a human right that should not depend on your financial status. Jesus never charged anyone for healing. He simply healed them. We live in a world where greed drives health care. That has to stop. The value of human life can never be quantified. Simply heal the people.
“I want families to remain whole and complete.” Sharon and Felicity complete my life, and I am sure you all feel the same about your loved ones. Simply value your relationships.
“I want the abuse of people and animals to stop.” A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable components. The news is full of stories of elder abuse in nursing homes, domestic violence, the sexual exploitation of children in churches, and parents beating children. And every day, we hear about abused animals as well. All of that has to stop sooner rather than later. Simply be kind.
“I want people to love each other, to care for each other, and make time for each other.” As the First Letter of John tells us, you cannot love God unless you love your neighbor. That includes your L-G-B-T-Q-I-A neighbor, your neighbor of a race different than yours, and any of your neighbors who are in distress of any kind.
Caring for one’s neighbor means simple acts of kindness, like holding doors open, sharing a meal, talking to a lonely person, mediating disputes, giving someone a ride, calling emergency services for someone in distress, or advocating on behalf of an oppressed person. Simply care for your neighbor.
And finally, “making time for each other.” We live in an over-busy society, where demands on one’s time perpetually pull people in opposite directions and to the exclusion of the time needed for people to connect to one another meaningfully. If there is anything I value most this Christmas, it is to sit next to Deacon Sharon and Felicity with my arms around them and tell them that I love them. Simply make time for your loved ones.
All of those are what will, in the words of our First Reading, relieve burdens from our shoulders and burn the instruments of oppression. And all of those things are without cost. Notice how the birth narrative of today’s gospel does not mention money or gifts of any kind. Jesus was born into poverty. His earthly parents were forced to experience his birth in a stable. They had no bed for him, only a manger, a place where farm animals eat, as his place to sleep. That should be a message to us that life with Jesus is not transactional but based on love for God and one another.
The most meaningful things at Christmas and throughout the year don’t cost a dime. If Deacon Sharon were dirt poor and could not afford to buy me any presents, that would be alright with me. Because what I want from her more than anything else is her love and companionship at Christmas and throughout eternity.
The most important Christmas gifts are those that money cannot buy. The most important gift of all is love, God’s love for us, and our love for one another. Human relationships are precious and worth preserving. However, you cannot pay anyone to love you truly, and no one can pay you to love them authentically. Yes, you can mouth the words “I love you” to another person, but love is more than words. Love is a state of being. Love comes from the heart.
So what really is Christmas if it is not about giving each other presents?
Christmas is the unwed woman who carries God.
Christmas is the pagans from the East who recognized God in the baby Jesus.
Christmas is the shepherds in the fields who hear from God.
Christmas is the marginalized neighbors who welcome God.
Christmas is God raising up the lowly and broken.
Christmas is here. Let the joy of Christmas enter into your life, now and always. AMEN.