We gathered around the sliced turkey, cranberries, gravy, sausage stuffing, spinach salad, green peas, brown-sugared yams, mashed potatoes, cornbread and yeast rolls. We held hands, forming a circle around the kitchen island, we seventeen individuals from five families, forming one this Christmas Day, age nine to eighty. We said Grace, thanking God for this bounty and for the great gift of his son in Bethlehem.
The rain had lifted slightly as dusk turned to dark, but most of our guests had arrived cold and wet from the storm. Our cat Lady Jane, a black and white longhair we brought home from a shelter several years ago, waited in the entry as each person arrived, then rolled onto her back so that her tummy would be available to be scratched. She loves parties.
Being in the warm indoors, surrounded by family and sharing our Christmas meal, the carols playing, my mind returned occasionally to the crèche in St. Peter’s, where now, I knew, the baby Jesus had been placed in his green manger bed, and beyond the altar would be adorned with red poinsettias. We had waited through Advent for the empty crib to be filled, waited with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the star that rose over the Bethlehem shelter. We waited with the animals, the other created beings on this good earth. We all waited for our Creator to come to us. God with us, Emmanuel.
Soon, around the dining table and sheltered from the rain, we exchanged stories of our lives, and toasted family and Christmas. We noticed that a granddaughter was looking more and more like a certain ancestor, that a niece had grown up overnight, that a son had put on a few pounds. We could see a little strain here, perhaps from overwork or over-worry, a little aging there, but renewed hope, for these few hours at least, everywhere.
Christmas, the waiting and the coming, has always carried a certain expectancy, a promise fulfilled. The gentle Advent disciplines, the tiny twinkly lights strung on rooftops and trees, the harmonies of carolers, the gift-giving, even the frenzied shoppers, all add to this rising crescendo of expectation. As children we waited for Santa, counting the days with great impatience. We waited and we wondered if Santa received the list, and if so, what would he bring…? As adults we continue to wait and wonder, caught up in the swirling activity of the approach of glory.
Some of us attend Christmas Eve services in the dark of night and, in candlelight and hushed quiet we sing carols, praying through the last hours of waiting. When my son was young and I was a single parent, I sat with him in the first pew of Saint Peter’s before the crèche, hoping he could see the robed priests and the sacred movements about the altar and possibly stay awake, but by 10:30 he usually had slipped down onto the smooth wooden pew, his head in my lap, his five-year-old body stretched out, sound asleep. As the liturgy ended, I hoisted him over my shoulder and into the car and we drove home through the starry night. He would usually be awake now, and as one o’clock neared, we wondered if we could see Santa riding his sleigh through the deep blue night above.
Santa of course is a wonderful reflection of God the Father, demanding, loving, giver of great gifts. In reality he was Saint Nicolas, fourth-century bishop, who not only gave gifts but took part in the Council of Nicaea, which helped to refine the Nicene Creed, the definitive statement of Christian belief. Santa Claus became a derivative of Sant’ Niklaus over the years, and his legend, while seized by retailers and pop singers, reflects in many ways the true meaning of Christmas.
For Christmas is indeed about giving, about giving to one another in love and sacrifice. It is about God giving us his son, and about our response to that great gift. Do we give ourselves back? Christmas is Christ-Mass, the gift given to us in every Eucharist, every Mass, every Sunday.
As we gathered around the table for our Christmas feast, I thought of my Advent memory work, the first fourteen verses of John’s Gospel, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Yes, I did indeed sort of memorize it, and the phrasing will stay with me forever, a delightful gift. It is one of the Gospels appointed for Christmas Day and, as we toasted family and Christmas, the last phrase rang in my ears, And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, that of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Yes, I thought, as I looked at the faces around my table, full of grace and truth, full of giving, full of Christmas.