Welcome to Christmas mania 2012. ‘Tis the season for buying gifts. On TVs, radios, and computers, the advertisements pour forth. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Buy this…no this…maybe that. If you truly love your wife, nothing says love like diamonds and mounting credit card debt. The mailbox is stuffed with catalogues. A tidal wave of slick advertising commands us to buy, buy, buy. Sometimes, a small, quite voice in us pleads, “Stop, please stop!”
What would the wise men think of what they started-the gift giving? They travelled far to offer the Son of God a kingly tribute, but just one gift per king it should be noted. And the shepherds who were there, they offered… nothing but their presence. And that should be a hint for us. The shepherds were offering their presence, their reverence, a free gift of the spirit. Well, today I offer you three free spiritual gifts that have been given to all of us.
Gift #1 The Gift of Being (Existence)
Our very presence, our very being is a gift. How many of us have ever thanked God for being alive, of being a part of his creation. Tress, flowers, plants, and even our dogs may reflect God’s creation, but we alone among earthly creatures are aware of this divine creation. And it is nothing less than a miracle that we are aware, aware that we are here, you and I. Does this point strike you as odd? Perhaps you shrug, “We are here, we are aware, so what?”
Let me press my point. It is a big deal. The chances of any kind of life in the universe are remote. Starting in 1961, scientists, mainly physicists, began to realize just how fined-tuned the universe had to be for there to be any life. They used the term, the anthropic principle, for this fine-tuning. According to the anthropic principle, there had to be the exact sequencing of more than 150 variables for there to be human life. Just to give one example of these variables, if the universe had expanded just a little faster, no planets form. With a minutely slower expansion, matter collapses back in on itself. And that is just one of 150 factors. It is calculated that the chances of there being human life in the universe is 10(173).
So we learn that human life is statistically impossible. And yet here we are. We should be grateful; our lives are an amazing gift. “I praise you because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!” (Psalm 139:14).
Gift #2 The Gift of One Another (Solidarity)
And so we are here, a miracle of creation. And so we are special, we have the gift of our life. But what to do with our gift? Cardinal John Henry Newman, the famous cleric and theologian of England provided some guidance when he proclaimed, “God has created me for some definite service; I have my mission…. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing.”
Example #1 It was Advent of 1989 and I was a very hard charging young trial attorney, I worked very long hours, was helping a partner run for Lieutenant Governor, and then I got the flu. The flu-no big deal. Then I got walking pneumonia. Then I received a call from my doctor and I drove to his office on a beautiful, sunny day. Oddly enough, I felt great until I got to his office and he said the x-rays showed pneumonia in both lungs. I had to go into the hospital immediately. What?! And for a week or more I got worse despite high levels of antibiotics, etc. I was not at death’s door, but I was just down the hall. And sitting in that hospital bed without my files, cases, or clients, without my workout schedule or dreams of political glory, I had time to think. The shock of the illness allowed me to grasp things anew. The writer, Flannery O’Connor, noted that for small minds, you had to draw large pictures. In the hospital I was presented a gift, a big picture. And I came to this realization, life was about other people, connecting with them and helping them. I knew this revelation was TRUE. And this ultimate truth was delivered with total clarity. No angels, no blinding lights to be sure, but I got the message. So I prayed to be able to get better so I could help people and be with my wife. This was the meaning of life. Well, life is rarely a straight line and there have been many subsequent twists and turns. But I would not be at the Aquinas Center of Theology without the shock of that illness. My illness was a blessing, a gift.
Example #2 We often get gifts from others that remind us of our connection to others, to the call of our faith to be our brother’s keeper. Sometimes it is from children. When my son was in Kindergarten in Indiana, he learned that there were children who did not have enough for Christmas. When he came home, he went into his room, got his piggy bank, and said, “I need to see Father. There are children who may not have a Christmas.” We took the money to the priest who was thankful and gave him an icon that he still has. My son’s direct response to need reminded me and still does that we are called to give, to connect to others in need. Now-today. Sometimes, we think too much as adults. What if we all responded like my son and lead with our hearts? What if we all were servants with our time and energies? What a gift we could offer Jesus at Christmas and
throughout the year.
Gift#3 The Gift of Jesus (Caritas)
While people are gifts, we know that we, who can give, can also take away. We, who can be charitable and kind, can also be selfish and cruel. We are part of a fallen world, no denying it. We are often dragged down by the dark side of the world and by the pain we cause others or receive from others. If there was not a good God of creation, such cruelty, such evil might seem to doom us to a fate without redemption or meaning. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
But we do believe in a good God, a God of creation, of redemption, a God whose grace is always there for us. Jesus told his disciples and he tells us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) This God emptied himself and offered the world his son who would experience our humanity, poverty, and pain. This God was not about worldly goods or triumphs. Jesus rejected these temptations in the desert. Instead, He offers us a model of mercy, charity, and purity of heart. And He offers us a model of servant leadership, showing his quarreling disciples who wanted to be leaders how to lead by his humble washing of their feet. The message: you are here to serve. Finally, He offered a last gift, his death for our redemption.
At this time of year, we remember not his last but his first gift, his entry into the world. This entry was little noted at the time. Jesus Christ came into the world in an obscure town, Bethlehem, in an obscure part of the great Roman Empire. He was born not in a palace but in a manger. His father was a carpenter, not a king; his mother was a young woman of no particular importance in the eyes of the world. And yet we know that innocent child transformed the world. And that child offers us the best gifts, the gifts of love, mercy, forgiveness, redemption, and life everlasting. What gifts! Let us honor these divine gifts by our gift of love to one another beginning in this special season. We know we can do this when we feel his loving presence in the Eucharist and then sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.” Amen.