This year, more than any other, I have been aware that there are two Christmas stories. Both are wrapped in appealing and evocative words and images, but the lack of connection between the two disturbs me – maybe you too. The society we live in has hijacked the first Christmas, taken the baby out of the manger and replaced him with a different story, one that’s about Santa, tinsel and toys.
We decorate trees, light up our houses, wrap gifts, maybe dream of a white Christmas, and for one special day try to gather as a family. It’s what I do too, but it leaves me feeling a little empty because the Person we were celebrating doesn’t get a mention.
A week later we’ve waved off the year that was and welcomed in the possibilities and hopes of the new. The Christmas decorations are stashed away till next December and the supermarket is selling hot cross buns.
The rest of Matthew’s Christmas story – the mysterious East, wise men, stars, gifts and jealous kings has been almost forgotten, relegated to church services. Epiphany is not just about the journeying or the gifts that speak of wealth and power. They are the exotic wrapping of an unbelievable gift, God hidden and yet revealed in a hungry, crying and powerless baby.
Most of us would have exchanged thoughtfully wrapped presents at Christmas and while we like to guess it’s often quite fun when the wrapping gives no indication of the gift within. Some years ago I gave my eldest foster son Paul a Target gift card for Christmas. He had become part of our family when he was ten. Now in his forties, he lived alone in a noisy public housing block in another state, grossly overweight, out of work and struggling to keep up the payments on his pride and joy, an aging black Statesman. On Christmas day he rang me to say thank you for the gift and to explain that he had given it to his friend Emma, “who has nothing and needed it more than I did”.
We call life-changing events “epiphanies”. If we let them in they have the power to change us in small but powerful ways. I had one of those moments when Paul told me about Emma. Suddenly he wasn’t “poor Paul”, but someone who lit up some ungenerous corners in my own life. His appearance didn’t give a clue about the lonely, loving and generous man he was then, and still is. I was left with a loving resect for this man who has caused me tension in the past. For the first time I caught a glimpse of the Paul God sees and loves.
It’s so easy to write people off, to label them as fat or ugly or old or whatever. We do it to ourselves too, mistaking our own wrapping for the whole gift. It only takes seconds for us to mentally list all the things we don’t like about ourselves. The beginning of a new year is traditionally the time to recapture what we would like to consider as our best self, the shiny bits that are splintered from God and are the only things that matter.
We forget that how we are wrapped encloses the gift we really are. Maybe 2018 will help us all to appreciate that. Judith Lynch