By Fr. George Berendt, PIME
When I recall my childhood here in Detroit I remember how my brothers and sisters and I looked forward to Thanksgiving Day. Not only was it a day when mom and dad prepared a wonderful dinner but also it was the day Santa Claus came to town. Come on! We saw his arrival on black and white TV among all the floats and marching bands prancing down Woodward Avenue. All that pomp and circumstance ushered in his arrival around 3 p.m. in the afternoon. There he was sitting in his huge sled waving to the crowds and to all of us in TV land.
To top it off we also knew where Santa was staying before Christmas Day. The considerate and kind CEO of the old Hudson Department store – that children- loving, thoughtful head honcho who managed the old mercantile behemoth that supplied all our shopping needs – set up a superlative yuletide throne inside his store where Santa and all his elves awaited us. Could you imagine anything more convenient? Shop, buy, and sit on Santa’s lap and whisper in his ears our secret desires and longings for a blissful Christmas. And then the final kicker; all us kids walked away with a candy cane after our audience with the North Pole maven!
One morning mom, grandma and us kids boarded the old streetcar on Michigan Avenue and went downtown and formed part of that long line of excited, giggling kids awaiting their turn to sit on Santa’s lap, whisper in his ear and walk away with a candy cane and the satisfaction that our innermost wants were at least heard and perhaps would be found that special evening under the Old Tannenbaum.
All we had to do now was wait until Rudolph and crew flew around that busy evening like a pre-UPS service dropping off our Christmas present dreams. Ah, childhood memories! Aren’t they sweet?
Christmas in America has always been associated with gift giving and I have no doubt that this tradition comes from the event we celebrate today. The event when the heavens opened and gave us the greatest gift of all: Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, our Messiah, our Emmanuel, our God who is with us.
This Child-God is God’s gift to us all, a gift to the world, a gift sent to redeem us, a gift sent to mend the broken relationships that exists between us, God, and each other, a gift that keeps on giving as some old commercial says, a gift that has not only sent human history on a new trajectory but has also placed our personal lives on a new arc.
This Christmas Eve as we look under the pine trees that festoon our homes, I’m sure many of us will find again gifts that cost a pretty penny and perhaps even set the household budget behind. The gift that God sent us, represented in St. Francis of Assisi’s crèche, is a child of a poor family, swaddled in tattered cloth, sleeping in hay, lying in a manger, an animal’s eating trough. Well, will not this child who “sleeps away in the manger” later becomes a man who says: “…take and eat, this is my body” (Mt. 26: 26)?
How inexplicable! God who created a cosmos with a big bang that now stretches billions of light years across came to us in human form on a “silent night” in a nowhere town taking as his first residence a humble barn. What a stench that cold night!
How unfathomable! God who placed every star in its place and spun the planets around their suns in orbits fixed, who filled the low points of earth with briny seas and populated them and the forests on land with brutes and beasts of every kind; why did he not come to us as some powerful, regal potentate or a general wearing a military, medal-loaded uniform standing at the head of a great, victorious, and triumphant army?
How amazing! God’s gift to the world was a weak and feeble child who formed the human hands that would caress and care for him and designed the breasts that would nurse and sustain him after his birth. This was a child of wonder indeed and an astonishing family no doubt.
Emmanuel’s first witnesses were critters who occupied the same barn as he and whose warm breath perhaps brought some relief that cold, winter, Bethlehem night.
When Emmanuel open his eyes for the first time, he who made and sculptured the human face; how did he respond to the gaze of the simple maiden girl, Mary his mother, and the rough, hewed face of carpenter Joseph who earned this family its daily bread? Whose eyes were more filled with wonder: those of Emmanuel or those of Mary and Joseph?
After the heavenly choir announced Emmanuel’s birth in the sky the first to visit were shepherd boys who always kept a constant watch in the night. After they entered the barn and looked into the eyes of God and God gazed into theirs, I wonder what they felt and what they thought as they wandered back to the hills and the flocks. Was it an easier, more joyful journey to make and their burden of work lighter to bear?
Humble, simple folk are the subjects of the infancy narrative of Matthew and Luke. The gift of this special child was to change our world and our lives.
Today many folks will un-wrap gifts placed under a tree enclosed in beautiful paper and ribbon. Will any of these gifts we open change our lives in any deep, dramatic way? Do we even remember what was under the tree last year? How many of the gifts received and given last year still exist or are still used today?
Over 2000 years ago God entered our lives and world in a simple and humble way and made our world a different place. God’s gift was opened and is still here with us: the gift of God’s presence and love.