May this be your greatest Christmas

Published 11:50 pm Sunday, December 17, 2006

By Staff
A young lady, back home from college for Christmas vacation, was standing with her mother at the checkout counter of a discount department store. Her mother had selected a toy for the dog, an artificial wreath for the door, and a package of &#8220logs” for the fireplace. &#8220Do you realize what you're doing?” the daughter asked. &#8220You are buying a fake bone, a fake wreath, and some fake logs.” At that point her mother was presenting the clerk with a credit card. As she observed this transaction, the daughter continued, &#8220But I guess that's all right since you're paying for them with plastic money.”
This story, while initially striking me as humorous, has also given me much pause. When I was very young, December was always such a wonderful month. The routine of the home would dramatically change. Shortly after Thanksgiving the Christmas decorations would come out of the closet and I would ride with my father to look for a Christmas tree. It was a delight helping my mother decorate the tree. So many of our ornaments had some type of sentimental connection to special persons or events worth remembering from the past. Indeed, I recall annually searching for a particular bulb that belonged to my father. He had apparently brought it back with him from England after his service in World War II. It was a strange brownish color, but it always received a place of honor on the tree.
Living in Ohio, snow was often on the ground in December. Saturday evenings were often spent with the family in the car traveling around looking at the various light displays in Galion and Bucyrus, as well as on the road between the two communities. It seemed like such a magical time. My brothers and sisters and I would have already gone through the Sears catalog that arrived sometime before Thanksgiving. Each of us had our hopes up for particular toys we wanted. The time of waiting seemed interminably long.
School would finally let out for a long break. On Christmas Eve we would go to bed early. It was difficult, for the excitement was so great. Then at 4:00 in the morning we would awaken one another and hurry down the stairs to meet in the living room. When the lights of the Christmas tree came on we were filled with delight at the transformation that had occurred while we slept. What excitement there was as we each opened our presents. Later on we would go to grandma's house to eat a huge dinner and open more gifts. It seemed a time of miracles.
The following week we would spend playing with our gifts, sharing them with our friends. This would then all be brought to a wonderful climax-a family trip to Columbus, Ohio for a New Year's party with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and my other grandma who we hadn't seen for at least six months. We would meet in the home of one of my uncles, which seemed very large and modern. Unlike our farm house in the country, it had a large basement equipped with a bar, a party area, and a huge pool table. We stayed up late and watched the adult men fire hunting rifles in the air at midnight. When it was all done we would return home, where the routine of the ordinary would begin all over again. Even so, we had new memories to treasure and shape us.
Things are different for me today. First of all, December seems so numbingly busy in comparison. There's not enough time and not enough money. My family seems so scattered and distant. Everything is so frantic, . . . and yes, maybe even fake. Indeed, what once seemed magical has now lost its charm. Often I wonder, &#8220Why are we doing all of this stuff?” When I stop long enough to think, then I recall those wondrous times as a kid. New admiration comes for my parents and how they seemed to make it all come together with such ease (or so it seemed!).
While I do not like the present frenetic pace of the season, there is one thing I have now that I did not have as a child: Santa Claus has become overshadowed by Christ. It was not until my late twenties that I first experienced Christmas in the Episcopal Church. Suddenly December, with its emphasis on Advent, the lighting of the Advent Wreath, and its message of preparation for the coming of the Lord changed the season. Indeed, all these things tended to put the busyness and the commercialism of the season into a different perspective. I found myself becoming more reflective of the meaning of the season and its claim upon my life. The Advent emphasis on our sinful condition, on Divine judgment, and preparing for the coming judge, forced me to reconsider my mortality, as well as my priorities. Is there not a better way to live my life? Then came the story of the Annunciation, speaking of the great risk God took in giving God's Self over so intimately to sinful humanity. On Christmas Eve I found myself before the manger of our Lord. When I first looked upon his great vulnerability, I was totally humbled. As I viewed my judge, I realized not only his need for me, but also his spectacular love. Then I wanted to make new resolutions on how I wanted to live my life, not because it was a new year, but because I wanted to better care for that Christ Child that has been placed in my care. Through the years this experience becomes more enhanced.
As each of you make your way through this season, please stop and reflect. Re-live all those special past seasons that helped to shape your lives. Reflect also about your life today and how it might withstand judgment. As noted by the young lady returning from college, does everything seem to be fake and plastic? Then allow yourself the joy of experiencing the reason for the season as you participate in the wondrous love of God on Christmas Eve. Here God in all God's vulnerability allows us to be equally vulnerable to the Divine Judge. Here you will realize a love that is worthy of your life. May this be the greatest Christmas season you will ever experience … at least until the next one.
The Rev. Gary Baldwin is pastor of St. Stephens Episcopal Church.