A couple of weeks ago I took the train from Richmond to New Haven, Connecticut to be with a friend who was having colon surgery at Yale/New Haven Hospital. She and her husband are our oldest friends and although there was nothing I could really do by being there for her surgery, I just knew I needed to go. I knew I needed to be present with them during this difficult time. Instead of driving or flying up North, I decided to take the train. It was a real treat that made an otherwise difficult 48 hours into a somewhat relaxing experience. Riding in business class I had 7 hours both ways in a big comfortable seat to read and rest and think. I brought lots of work with me but I also brought an arm load of newspapers and magazines to entertain me on the journey. As I read the Times, the Times Dispatch, PC Magazine, Newsweek, Time, and others, I was struck by all of the holiday advertisements and articles wanting to tell me exactly what I ought to buy for the person on my list who has “everything”. There was the “Personal Beverage Vendor” for $500.00 – a miniature soda machine that holds up to 66 cans of your four favorite soft drinks. Just what everyone needs? Or there was the “Automatic Eyeglasses Cleaner” – the battery operated device that will clean your eyeglasses and save you all that time and physical energy you might spend actually cleaning your glasses yourself. There was the Ronco Inside-the-Shell Electric Egg Scrambler and the Deluxe Backlit Lithium Digital Tire Gauge. But my favorite was the “Tiki Head Tissue Box Cover” a striking device that fits over the top of your Kleenex box and allows you the great joy of pulling fresh tissue out of the nose of a plastic replica of a Polynesian stone god. I ordered one immediately.
Incredible isn’t it? Not only are these gifts absurd but the whole idea of buying a meaningful present for the person who has everything is itself absurd. It is like trying to figure out what to feed someone who has just stuffed themselves at a feast. Because if you have everything then, at least in theory, you need nothing; and if you need nothing then whatever you get will have little if any real meaning. And so it is with Christmas itself. You can’t really celebrate Christmas if you don’t have a need. Or should I say you can’t really celebrate Christmas if you don’t know your needs. This night, this holy night only has real meaning for any of us to the extent that we recognize our deep spiritual need for a savior. It only has meaning if you and I are able to see that hole deep within our souls that we are forever longing to fill. It is a hole that cannot be filled by soda machines or electric egg scramblers – it is a hole that can only be filled with God.
The El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated in 1980 once said – “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who . . . look down on others . . . for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God with us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.” Without a need for Christ to be born within our hearts there can be no real Christmas.
However, make no mistake about it, there are lots of false Christmas visions that try to fill us up during this holiday season, false visions to distract us from the meaning of this night. But ultimately they cannot fill us for at their core they are empty. ‘There is the obsessive celebration of what I call the Santa Christ – the jolly god who lives far, far away and is only mentioned once a year. The god who brings stuff we don’t really need and the god we know doesn’t really exist but who gives us a convenient excuse for celebration. Then there is the Sweet Baby Syndrome that celebrates the lovable infant in his manger, smiling and cooing. He doesn’t make any demands on anyone; he just lies there and looks sweet. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other nativity scene equipment. But once a year, we get him out and say – “isn’t he sweet.” Of course we always put him back in the closet when the new year begins. And then there is the Mercantile Messiah who proclaims that Christmas is all about giving therefore all you have to do is let folks sell you something that you can give to somebody else. The problem with the Santa Christ, the Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go and everything is the same as before. They don’t change anyone. They don’t reveal anything about God. They don’t make demands. They are meaningless and so they imply that Christmas is meaningless.’
But Christmas isn’t meaningless not if you have a need, a real need for God, a God you can touch, a God who can touch you, a God who comes to be one of us in order to show us the power of love. Not long ago my brother Holly told me a story about watching his brother-in-law put his 3 year old daughter to bed for the night. They were visiting for the weekend and as he tucked in his little girl Holly stood in the doorway and watched. Right away he could tell that his niece did not like the idea of being in a strange room all alone. His brother-n-law leaned down kissed his daughter and told her not to worry, she wasn’t alone, God was with her, the Spirit of God was all around her. With that the little girl reached up grabbed her father by the chin and said, “But Daddy, I want a God with a skin face.”
God with a “skin face,” that is the gift of this night – a God en-fleshed, the infinite breaking into the finite, the divine becoming human, the God who becomes us in order to fill our deepest hungers, in order to show us the way back to God. This God with a “skin face” can change our lives and fill us with a joy that makes this life worth living. This God with a “skin Face” demands that we incarnate the same love he shared with us; that we seek to meet the needs of others as he lived and died to fill our deepest needs.
When I think about my trip to New Haven a couple of weeks ago I realize that to many people going all that way just to sit in a hospital for two days might seem pretty silly. After all, I couldn’t change things. Cancer would be cancer; the surgeons would do what surgeons do; Amiee was going to be sick whether I was there or not. But I had this need to go and be with two people I love so much, to be present with them during a difficult time in their lives. And while they needed many things, including having their family well and whole again, I think they needed me too. Just being there with them was indeed a gift. It didn’t fix things but the gift of my presence was all I had to give and in some way I think it was enough.
The great gift of this night is the gift of God himself – born to us, as one of us, to be with us. This is no North Pole god, no cute Christmas card god, no god of consumerism. Many people may not understand why he has come. Many others may think that the news of his arrival is nothing more than a silly story. But to those who have faith, this night proclaims that in Jesus God has come to fulfill our greatest needs – the need for love, the need for meaning, the need to be made whole again. Welcome him into your hearts this night. And may the Word that was made flesh dwell among you and bless you richly this day and always. Amen. Adapted from an article by Michael White in the “Christian Century”.