I said to someone this week, "When did Santa Claus invent Christmas? And if those wise men from the east were so wise, then why did they bring gifts to the infant Jesus so that I now have to seek out that perfect gift for my loved ones!" Now dont get me wrong; I dont want to be the Grinch that stole Christmas. But I have to confess that following in my car someone with a shopping trolley filled to the brim back to their car, only to be waved past because they are going back for a second shopping binge, does not bring out the best in me.
Now I know what some of you are thinking, "Why does he leave his Christmas shopping till the last moment?" Well you see, thats a very rational question, but Christmas shopping doesnt fit into the rational for me. It is a chore that must be put off until the very last moment, like studying for an exam you dont want to do. Finally it is fear that pushes you to act.
OK, so thats the negative part of the story. For others, I know there is a joy in choosing a gift because it is a tangible expression of ones love for another person. There is of course, a positive and it comes from sharing gifts and celebrations with loved ones, perhaps family and friends and even the occasional stranger; and thats what relieved me of my frustration and irritation while shopping. From time to time during my search for the perfect gift, I noticed that even in that hustle and bustle of Westfield Shopping Centre in Doncaster the faces of the people - the children and adults - could radiate a sense of joy, love and hope. But that only happened when I was willing to see it.
The Face of God
The Rev Rex Hunt, who was for many years a Uniting Church minister in Canberra, wrote in one of his Christmas sermons these words:
At Christmas we are given a glimpse of God, and traditionally speaking God looks like every mothers child, every woman and every man ever born. The great mystery is that because God is so familiar, because God looks like every one of us, it is harder to tell who God is.
So for me the Christmas story is first of all about "the Everyday God." But it is also a wonderful mingling of everyday life with the mysterious and the miraculous. Clement Miles, the author of several books on Christmas customs, rituals and traditions, wants us to first experience the earthiness of this story:
"The God of Christmas", he says, "is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished. Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life: affection and comradeship, eating and drinking and merry-making..."
Nevertheless, it is everyday life that is filled with a mystery that lifts the mundane into the realm of the sacred. There is in this story the birth of a human child. Perhaps like the birth of any child. But this birth that we celebrate every year reminds us to open ourselves to see that every birth is a glimpse of the face of God. We can so easily be robbed of the wonder and awe that there is in life if we are unable or unwilling to see daily life as the theatre of divine activity.
Last week I noted that the author of Lukes gospel called for the lowly to be lifted up. For me that is to see in this story both the beauty and holiness in the common experiences of life. The pregnancy, the journey on a donkeys back, the inn with no room, the shepherds, the stable, the straw, the birth and the first cry of the small child, all so natural and understandable. But for our imaginations to be engaged at a deeper level, we must also see a radiance that surrounded the shepherds and hear the angels words:
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with awe. And the angel said to them, "Dont be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people."
And we must listen and hear their song:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."
And then follow the lead of Mary in this story:
When the shepherds had seen the baby, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
And that is the key to experiencing the "Everyday God": and Mary treasured and pondered in her heart all these things.
Pondering the Story of Christmas
The Melbourne lecturer and writer David Tacey once said that:
"the new spirituality brewing within Australian society at the moment, will...truly be revealed as the mystery and silence at the heart of everything we do and feel. God in Australia will not be proud, haughty or exalted but, rather, everyday, horizontal and earthly".
Pondering is underrated in both our society and in our religious life. It is the place where the common things of life become pathways to the spirit. A silent place where life is revealed as the mystery at the heart of everything we do and feel. Pondering, wondering, contemplating the things of the earth, unleashes in us the power to transform and change not only our own lives, but also the life of our world.
It even enables us to see that the Christmas shopper standing in the queue in front of me is seeking a special gift for a loved one. And that among the tinsel and ring of cash registers there is a kind of re-enactment of that first Christmas birth and the celebrations that surrounded it. Remember, this story wants us to know very clearly that Jesus was born not in a palace or even a quiet and peaceful place but among the common people going about their daily business.
So with Mary we are called to ponder the meaning of this story in our own lives. And we are challenged to see this birth and every birth as both earthly, common and everyday; while also remembering that there is a sacred mystery at the heart of life that we can experience when our eyes are open.
Ill finish with the words of the 15th-century German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart, who wrote:
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?
Emmanuel God with us, today and every day.