I’m not sure when the momentary recognition came. Was it opening the front door to family, welcoming them in from the rain, taking their coats and greeting them with “Merry Christmas”? Or perhaps it was when I took a photo of them sitting alongside one another, chatting and laughing, creating a sweet hum in the room? Or when we all posed in front of the tree for another photo, staged with a tripod and timer and me running into the group to edge in before the camera clicked?
In our house there was an absence of young children this year, and hence the presence of the young adults, the parents, and the grandparents (my husband and I)). It was quieter, for we didn’t need to orchestrate present-presenting by an older child with a Santa hat and watch the tumult as they ripped and peeked and shook the boxes and finally gasped pleasure or seeming pleasure or, in the event of a disastrous choice, dismay and disappointment.
I’m not sure when the moment came, when I began to recognize the gift that was peculiarly mine, but I think it was in the kitchen when two of our young adult grandchildren helped me with dinner preparations. We began chatting theology, of all things. The granddaughter, age twenty-three, was a newly converted Roman Catholic, living in Seattle, teaching children in a Christian preschool. The grandson, age twenty, was a fervent Orthodox Presbyterian, studying to become a pastor. I stood in the middle, the Anglican, the “via media,” and tried to referee flying missiles of absolute belief tossed back and forth, sola scriptura versus authority of Church and Tradition; errancy and inerrancy; translation and human fallibility. When it got a little heated, I would squeeze in a word or two, “but we all believe in the creeds, right? The Nicene? Even the more general Apostles Creed?” which would produce general nodding for a minute, and then they were off again…
I thought then, standing in the kitchen, trying to remember I needed to serve dinner, that this is my gift from God this Christmas, that two of my grandchildren are so committed to Christ that they are dueling theology in my presence (how wonderful!) in my kitchen, while stirring gravy and carrying turkey and mashed potatoes to the table. Their hearts had been open at the right time in their teen years – as had happened to me at age twenty (fifty-four years ago!) – and the Holy Spirit had entered the open doors to stir them up with Life itself. I was thankful they experienced the joy of Our Lord, as I do.
That was yesterday. But driving to our Berkeley chapel this morning in the rain, I rethought my gift. With pleasure, I listened to my memory of the moment, their animated faces, their deep convictions, their lived-out Christianity, their epiphanies, their discoveries. And as I listened to my interior musings, I realized this was not the gift after all.
The gift after all was Christmas, Christmas itself. Christ himself. God gave me – gave each one of us – Jesus, his son, a baby born to a mother who said yes, and a father who said yes too, into an impoverished and persecuted minority in an arid and dangerous land. The gift was – and is, and continues to be – nothing less than the Son of God, the redeemer of the world, the savior of mankind. He knocks on the door of my heart and I open the door and welcome him in from the cold and rain, bid him enter my soul. He is my Christmas present, ever-present, the Real Presence consumed in this morning’s Eucharist.
Christmas is a time when so many gifts – epiphanies, as it were – are showered upon us. We need only listen, watch, and pray, to be ready for Christmas Day. As I said in a poem long ago, “We need to be ready for Christmas Day, when God Himself came down to earth/ To love us, save us, with His birth.” Our open hearts form a garland of light that decorates the time, the Advent time of watching and waiting, the Christmas time of celebrating and proclaiming, the Christmastide time of reflecting and understanding what it all means.
There are those in our current time, a tumultuous and arid time to be sure, who think Christ is calling his sheep in to the safety of his fold. He is knocking on doors of hearts one at a time, before it is too late. He is offering himself one more time, the gift of life, of salvation. Some will not hear the knock for want of listening and growing deafness; some will hear the knock, open the door, only to close it upon the stranger before them or before the empty dark; some will hear the knock, open the door, and welcome the Son of God into their heart’s home.
Christmas is a time of giving. We give to one another our time, our talent, and the trinkets we think will bring them joy. But in the giving we tell a story of greater giving, cosmic giving, the gift of Eternity. In the giving we tell the story of Bethlehem again and again, year after year, so that those we love will hear the knock, open the door, and welcome Christ into their hearts to change them forever into sons and daughters of the Almighty God.