[The Age referred to this sermon, given at St Peter's Melbourne at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, in a story on December 26. You may or may not recognize it from the report! I'll accept the "any publicity is good publicity" maxim...]
So – the shopping is either done, or you should be past caring. If you forgot the beans or the parsnips, tell the unhappy diners to get over it!
In any event, you have probably spent considerable hours, perhaps also money, and care, on the needs of others for this Christmas. According to the spoilers in the Age this morning regarding the Christmas messages of local Church leaders tomorrow, we will also rightly be encouraged to think beyond our own families and friends to consider the needs of the poor and refugees, those who cannot anticipate a laden table or presents to unwrap.
But I want to ask you to be selfish for a moment. What did you really want for Christmas? What were you hoping for? I mean really.
It’s a question that may evoke more in the way of fond memory than specific hope. Such questions are more for children than for most of us. Even those who at this time place less hope in this particular child of Bethlehem find the faces and hopes of children evocative, representing something true, if difficult, deep within us all.
Children, after all, are those who can realistically want something for Christmas. Their hopes stand a reasonable chance of fulfilment, and thus stand for all of ours. Maturity brings the realization that while Christmas gifts may continue to be tokens of love and thanksgiving, they are not actually the fulfilment of our deepest wishes. It’s partly because we develop dreams more expansive than those defined by Borders, Barbie dolls, or boutiques - and partly because we learn over time that most people do not fulfil their dreams, or else we lose them.
Christmas can thus a sad time for many. We feel the loss of loved ones, or the absence of those from whom we are estranged, more keenly at a time when so much emphasis is placed on togetherness. And more generally, we also sense the passage of time and with it the narrowing of opportunities that remain and the cost of choices once made.
Bringing this unchosen wisdom of our own lives to the manger, we may be very conscious of what has and has not been fulfilled of what we once wished for. What we really want is a hard question, whether because don't know, or because we do.
This child of Bethlehem is an evocative figure amid such reverie; he does not, however, come as the bringer of the gift of nostalgia, let alone of regret. This child brings his own innocence and hope with a purpose: to recall our own. While we may today celebrate what we find and recall of past hope in his face and those of the young, consider for a moment the possibility of your own face in his gaze.
God’s view of us is not the picture provided by our CVs or our bank accounts, or even of our families and relationships, all those things we acquired or achieved in our own efforts to fulfil those wishes of years past. Our efforts to win, to possess, are not what make us who we are, whether we seem to have succeeded or failed.
The shepherds, first witnesses to the incarnation, are signs of this truth. These men who come to the manger at Bethlehem ahead of us are not of any particular social standing or power, quite the opposite; they are humble, landless people without obvious accomplishment, chosen despite this, or even because of it.
A newborn cannot distinguish between a shepherd and a king. To recognise God in this newborn is to believe God might always see infinite potential in us, and new hopes. God meets all of us as though we, too, still had that same promise and potential we see in the child. This is the truth of Christmas and the truth of the Gospel.
The one who has entered into human life among the poor invites us now to live our lives free of the baggage we have been carting around, imagining that it was what we really wanted, and to live into the possibility that that freedom offers.
What did you really want? What we all really want for Christmas, I suspect, is to be known just as we are, and to be accepted as we are. This is the gift Mary and Joseph receive, that the shepherds receive, and that is offered to us.