It was an ordinary package, tucked underneath the tree along with all the other Christmas treasures that waited to be opened on Christmas morn. This package rarely gets noticed and most times is never opened, because it is dwarfed by all the other packages that scream importance -- the ones with ribbons and bows and glitter, the small ones that hint of expensive jewelry inside or the larger ones that warn us that some assembly may be required. There are the packages that were hoped for -- the electronics and gadgets where batteries are not included. Other packages are of such sizes that their contents are oh-so-predictable -- the shirt and matching sweater. In the midst of it all, this plain package wrapped in plain brown paper goes unnoticed.
Perhaps the next day -- or maybe even the next week after all the wrappings are discarded and the gifts are arranged in piles of keep, re-wrap and to-be-returned, we notice the plain package that beckons our attention each and every Christmas. Inside this package is not something to be worn or played with or displayed in a curio cabinet. Inside this package is a story -- THE story which seeks to be told and received not only on Christmas day but every single day of the year. It is the story of the creator God who enters this world in the simplicity that is as overlooked as a plainly wrapped package on Christmas day. It is the story of a helpless infant seeking to be held and coddled. It is the story where the punch-line is simply this -- your history, your story, your life is so important that the eternal God has chosen to enter into it and shed light upon it and remind you with ever luminous clarity that you have a value and a worth and a dignity beyond all price.
This package waits to be opened. God is so yearning to tell you the story and He never gets tired of telling it over and over again. He says again, "I came in simplicity to walk with you so that you can discover in the simplicity of your own life who you truly are -- a precious, priceless jewel of incomparable value. For a moment, this Christmas, I want you to be able to see yourself the way I see you. For I do not see you in your sin or defects; I do not see you in your accumulated badges of honor and titles. I do not see you in your achievements and accomplishments. I see beyond all that -- I see the one I created in my image and likeness."
This Christmas, take the time to unwrap the greatest gift of all -- the true meaning of your worth, your value, your importance as a precious child of God, unadorned in simplicity, precious in the eyes of One who yearns to walk with you and remind you again and again of the dignity you have as His beloved.
There are two fundamental facts that strike me about humankind at this time of year. The first fact is that all of us are good-hearted people -- to a point. When there is a genuine need, we will respond to that need -- to a point. If we are asked to contribute to a cause, to offer time needed for a project, to take someone somewhere, we respond with a kindness -- to a point. Catch me on a good day, and I will do more. Catch me on a bad day -- and I will probably do something. After all, we are all good-hearted people, to a point.
The second fundamental fact that strikes me at this time of year is that the whole drama of Christmas is a drama of total self-gift, more than just a nod to the conventional good manners by which most of us get by in life. The mystery of the Incarnation is God's total self-gift in Jesus. Mary's "I am the maidservant of the Lord" is a total self-surrender. And today we meet Joseph's willingness to move past conventional manners in order to offer himself totally as chaste spouse and foster father to the Word-made-flesh.
In the gospel, Joseph, on hearing of the pregnancy of his espoused, wants simply to divorce her. This is the act of a good-hearted man who does not want Mary to receive the death-penalty for what seems to be a breach of the spousal contract that was made at he time of their betrothal. Joseph, a 'just man," does not expose her to the full weight of the law for this seeming infidelity; rather, he is content to leave her and pick up the pieces of his own life and move on. His intention is to do all of this in a
quiet, well-mannered way.
Of course, the angel of God invites Joseph to perform a far more generous deed: to take Mary as his wife and to raise this child conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Few people would understand such generosity on the part of Joseph; fewer perhaps would even support him in his decision. Yet, there come those moments when the Lord does lay it upon our heart to be more than just a good-hearted person and to go the distance.
God does call us to be more than just good-hearted people. He constantly prods us towards a sacrificial generosity that at times defies logic and certainly moves us past doing the well-mannered good deeds. And here we are at the eleventh hour before the Christmas festivities. Even now, when we are most tired and have every excuse in the world not to give more than we have already given, the Father invites us to go a little bit further, dig down a little bit deeper, and respond with a little bit more
patience and genuine love as we give of ourselves just a little bit more.
I believe some of you know that it was a desire in my heart to want to come to Saint Brigid’s for a number of years. Perhaps the first seed of that desire was planted back in the day when Father Frank was pastor and he asked me to help him one summer. There was something extraordinary about this parish that I loved. Sometimes it is hard to put into words the desires of your heart. I just knew that this is a parish community where I felt called to serve, and I rejoiced when the opportunity was finally given to me.
Over these past three-and-a-half years, I have come to face a number of challenges as a pastor, challenges which might tempt me to wonder whether or not my desire to come here was in fact from God. However, I think that all people, especially married people, go through the same process. People fall in love, they feel called to go the next step and get married, and then challenges emerge which can call into question the decision itself. In those moments of challenge we might be inclined to say,“What in the world was I thinking?”
Second thoughts – analyzing our past decisions – wondering if we chose well – this is the theme of today’s gospel. In last week’s gospel, we saw John the Baptist on fire with his love and devotion to God, sure that his whole life and ministry was to bring him to this singular moment to point out to the crowd the Messiah, the one “mightier than I who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In today’s gospel, we find John now in prison, filled with doubts and concerns. From prison, he may even have heard that Jesus, the one whom he came to proclaim, was also facing a rising tide of rejection. He wonders in prison, “Did I make a mistake? Was all this in vain?”
Jesus’ response to the disciples whom John sends to question Jesus is very clear: Look at the evidence of what you see – the mighty deeds of God that are now being performed in your midst. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the poor have the good news preached to them. Jesus calls the people to reflect upon the desires that they had when they went into the desert to hear the preaching of John. All the evidence, past and present, point to the fact that what God was doing in John’s ministry was good and true and valid. Both John, now in prison, and his disciples needed to know that, despite the evidence of setbacks and rejection, God has a beautiful plan that is unfolding before us.
Sometimes the challenges of life do make us call into question the desires of our heart which, at one time, seemed so clear and straightforward. However, we come to see that all our analyzing and dissecting of motives and desires does not bring us greater clarity but only more confusion. In the end, it’s all about trust – a trust that what we experienced in the depths of our heart was not wrong or foolish or vain. May the Lord draw us into a deeper trust in his mysterious plans for us.