Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gifts We Bring to the Manger - Christmas Eve 08

For better or worse, giving gifts is a part of Christmas.  We can protest all we like about the commercialization of Christmas, but gift-giving has been a part of Christmas since the magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child.


Our carols celebrate the giving of gifts.  The little drummer boy brought his drum – pah rum pa pum pum.  And compared to the gifts listed in the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, most of our Christmas gift lists look fairly modest. Can you get "seven lords a-leaping" at Target? Can I put "eight maids a-milking" on layway?


But probably the best reflection on gift-giving is Christina Rosetti's "In the bleak midwinter", poem which concludes,


If I were a shepherd

I would bring a lamb

If I were a wise man

I would do my part

What I have I give him

Give my heart.


The Bible tells us of two groups that came to see the child in the manger ‑‑ the shepherds and the magi.  Although we know only of the gifts of the magi, I believe that both groups brought gifts.


From the East, probably the kingdom of Persia, came magi.  We say there were three of them and they were kings, but this is mere speculation.  There were three gifts, so we assume there were three magi, and the gifts were rare and costly, so we assume the magi were of royal blood. 


The other group, the first to worship God made flesh, were shepherds.  Though poor, they, too, brought something.  They had been surprised and overcome with the heavenly host singing God's praises.  They rushed to see "this thing that has happened that the Lord has made known to us".  And the text tells us that they left the stable "glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard".


What the shepherds brought to the manger and took away from the manger were hearts full of joy and wonder.


So, St. Luke and St. Matthew's Christmas stories tell us that the wise and simple, the wealthy and the poor, came to the manger, and each brought something precious:  The magi their riches ‑‑ the shepherds their wondering hearts. 


Like the magi and the shepherds we are invited to the manger.  We are invited to join the circle around the manger, with Mary and Joseph and wise men from Persia and poor shepherds from nearby fields.


What will you bring to the manger?


Some of us will bring rich gifts.  This church is a great gift that the people of this community have built and maintained through the years that bears permanent witness to God's truth and love.  The generosity we have shown to the poor in our own community and throughout the world through our contributions to the diocese and national church are even more important gifts.  God accepts such gifts and blesses them.


Others, I hope most of us, bring such hearts as the shepherds had, full of joy and wonder.  Perhaps children's hearts are more likely to be like the shepherds.  Those of us who have grown up (at least, those of us who are supposed to have grown up) have so many things on our minds and hearts, that sadly there is less room for joy and wonder than there once was.  Yet, it is often said that at this season all of us in some way become children once again.  God certainly accepts and blesses those who bring joy and wonder to the manger.


But maybe there are those who have neither rich gifts nor hearts full of joy and wonder to bring to the manger.  Or could there be something you and I bring to the manger along with our riches and joy and wonder?


The author Brian Ragen relates how his father would tell him of how he grew up in bitter poverty.  Ragen's father would tell his son that his family was so poor that the only toy he had to play with was a broken Matchbox car.  His family was Roman Catholic and Christmas Eve in their parish church was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony.  It was the custom in Ragen's father's church for the people of the parish to bring gifts for the Christ child and place them at the creche in the back of the church.  People would bring beautiful chalices for the altar; clothes for the poor; and envelopes full of money.  Ragen wrote, "On Christmas morning it seemed as though the baby Jesus had been visited by many caravans of wise men, and [my father] wanted very much to give the Christchild a present".


But he was poor, so what could he give Jesus?  Then, he realized what he must give Jesus:  his broken Matchbox car.  On Christmas Eve he went to church with his family, genuflected before the altar, and placed his broken Matchbox car amid the treasures around the Christchild's manger.


An usher took a final look at the creche before the mass began, noticed the car, and said, "Who would leave a piece of trash like this at Our Lord's crib?"  The usher picked up the car and threw it across the church.  Then, Ragen's father would tell his son, the baby Jesus came to life and crawled across the floor of the church to the corner where the car lay, tucked it under his arm, and crawled back to his creche where his arms were folded tightly around the broken toy car. 


The story, of course, was a charming fable that Brian Ragen's father made up to entertain and instruct his son.  The reality of his father's life was much darker and more violent.


Ragen went on to say that his father was abusive.  He was an alcoholic, and when sober was "a mean, foul‑mouthed terror".  He would often go with his father to confession on Saturday, and says that he "hated the idea that the ogre who darkened my life would be forgiven ‑‑ and so easily, too".


Then, years later, Ragen figured out the meaning of his father's Christmas story. 


"I realize that I cast him in the wrong role.  My father was, indeed, not the good little boy who gave his last plaything to the Christchild.  My father was the smashed Matchbox car with a couple of wheels missing.  He had failed in his public life... his family considered him an enemy....  He was a wreck.  But despite ‑‑ or because of ‑‑ all this, he longed to be cradled in his Savior's arms, to have him still seek him after he had been rejected by everybody else.  And in the end, perhaps he was like the good little boy after all:  he kept dragging himself to church and laying that sorry offering to his God, trusting that it would not be refused."  (Brian Ragen, "The Baby Jesus and the Angel of Light", The Christian Century, Dec. 13, 1995.)


The circle around the manger is wide, indeed, it is infinite.  So, come with the wise men and shepherds to the manger; bring your riches, bring your glad, full, and joyous hearts.  But also bring your brokenness, your sadness, your failures and let Jesus hold them in his hands next to his heart full of love where what is missing or broken in our lives and hearts may be mended and healed.  In the circle around the manger sins are forgiven, and life can start all over again.