Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Gift: a homily for Christmas Day

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

Merry Christmas! Most of us have been saying 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Christmas' for several weeks now, but today is actually Christmas Day and so the first day that it truly applies. And there is something else that we might say today: Happy birthday, Lord. For today is the birthday of our Saviour. I was really reminded of that by my youngest son, Malachi, over the course of the last week because each night during prayers he would pray that Jesus would have a lovely birthday.

God bless him, because I don't remember at a similar age having any particular thoughts about Christmas other than what presents I would receive. In fact, I actually remember the Christmas when I pretty much exactly the same age as Malachi very well. It was 1969 and it was my first Christmas in Ireland. That August my parents had moved the family back from America and we were living with my grandparents in Newmarket in North Cork. Our apartment in
New York had been tiny – too small for a Christmas tree; and this year I was determined that we should have our first one.

But on my grandparents' farm, while there were many pine trees growing, there were none suitable for a Christmas tree. My grandmother, being a very clever and imaginative woman, improvised, and broke a huge branch off one of the pine trees – well over seven feet long. It made for a rather flat, two-dimensional tree, but it was otherwise the right shape, and I was more than happy. A galvanised bucket from the farmyard was filled with earth, wrapped in coloured paper, and used for a stand. But then, what to decorate it with? We had no lights, no tinsel, no baubles. So every small, shiny thing that could be gathered up was pressed into use and hung on the Christmas branch. I particularly remember the gold plastic hilt of a broken toy sword that made for an especially glittering decoration.

I thought the tree looked very nice; but it was decided by higher authority, by which I mean the grown ups, that at least a few commercially produced baubles were needed. And so a trip into town was organised, to Terry Eddies, the local purveyor of books, newspapers, cards, toys, and all kinds of other trinkets and ornaments.

And it was there that I spotted what I really wanted for Christmas – a table top pinball machine. It was about two foot by one, made of wood, with blunt metal spikes for the pins, marble sized steel ball-bearings for the balls, and a pull-back spring mechanism to shoot them around powerful enough to break bones. It was another age and absolutely no concessions were made to health and safety concerns with this gadget. The only parent who would buy it today would be one who was hoping to take a lucrative court case against the manufacturer by New Year's Day.

I thought it was fantastic One of Santa's spies must have been watching as I stood there in the shop with my mouth open staring at it, because it, or something remarkably similar, appeared under the Christmas branch, duly wrapped, on Christmas morning. I was over the moon, and cared nothing for one of my uncle's observations that if anyone were to fall on those spikes it would certainly be a Christmas to remember.

Thankfully, no one was injured by this potentially lethal device, and it continued to be a favourite toy of mine for years. In fact, it proved remarkably durable, and I remember playing the occasional game of pinball on it even in my college years. Alas, when I left home, it was consigned to my parent's damp garage where the wood warped, the pins rusted or fell out, and the firing mechanism seized. When I came across it again some years later, it was fit only for the skip. Perhaps it is just as well; the temptation to pass it on to my own children would have been too great, and the chances that yet another child would manage to spend a childhood playing with it unscathed are probably as remote as my being able to track down the manufacturers at this stage to bring a case against them.

But, and it may seem strange, that deadly pinball machine is practically the only Christmas present I remember from my childhood. I vaguely recall a slinky I got when I was younger that didn't survive a trip down the long, stone stairs of the brownstone apartment building we lived in in New York; and I think some years later I got an American Indian set, with a rubber tomahawk and a headdress with some coloured feathers. But nothing that lasted as long or made quite the impact as the toy that had the potential to accidentally pierce ears or remove fingers.

And it would be nice to think that all the children here, young or old, whether less than nine weeks or more than ninety years, would have a memory like that of a great Christmas gift – the perfect present that remains in the mind always, bringing a smile to the lips and a warmth to the heart whenever you think about it.

But, of course, even if there is never something wrapped under the Christmas tree that ends up matching that description, there is one gift that we all received on Christmas that should bring joy to the heart – the gift of his very self that God gave to us by taking on flesh and being born on Christmas day. A gift that brings joy to the world and the promise of salvation to all. The greatest present that could be given to anyone was made by the Lord Jesus on the day of his birth. And so if the thing you really wanted most of all didn't arrive this morning – if Santa somehow forgot to bring it, or misread your list and brought you something else instead – it really doesn't matter; you've already been given the greatest gift of all, a gift that can never warp or rust or break or get lost; a gift that can never be taken away from you; the gift of Christ the Lord.

To God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three persons in one God, be praise and glory for evermore: Amen.  

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