I am twelve years old and sitting beside the lit Christmas tree. Everyone else is in bed and I am hatching a plan. What if, just for fun, I open all my gifts and then re-wrap them before Christmas? Wouldn’t that be cool?? No more waiting and guessing! No more hoping I get what I want! Yes. I’ll do it.
So I carefully open up the end of each package with my name on it and slip the boxes out without having to undo most of the remaining tape. (Brilliant.) I peek into each one, but it’s not as fun as I imagined earlier and I’m getting more and more anxious as the time stretches on. It’s kind of cool but not really. It’s actually pretty nerve wracking and I begin to hurry through each one, barely glancing at the present, just praying I’ll get through this without getting caught. I made it! No one knows! Whew.
Then I start thinking about Christmas morning. All the faces around the tree, watching me (re)open my packages, looking for my reactions, hoping I’ll love it!! And I realize my great caper doesn’t end this night, it has to stretch out the next few days and culminate with a Christmas morning performance like I’ve never given before. Not cool.
It is a funny thing about memory. I don’t remember a single present from that year. Not one. I do remember feeling guilty and worried (that was the year I realized being a spy was probably not for me…) And I remember something else. None of it mattered. Because Christmas morning came and I, sick with worry, was immediately enveloped in the love around the tree. My anxiety melted away. There was my mom, who had somehow managed to have something ready for us to munch on even though it was early morning. There were my grandparents, looking at us as if we were the most amazing kids in the world. And my dad, pretending to guess every present beforehand and making us laugh. My little sister, who loved everything she ever got, was as excited about my gifts as I was (more, as it turns out), and she provided good cover. And they all loved me, just as I was. Maybe my parents knew about the packages (there is that thing, after all, about eyes in the back of their heads).
Maybe they didn’t. But it didn’t matter. Because they loved me. I relaxed into that love and let it take away all the worry and guilt and fretting. That’s what I remember about the Christmas I pre-opened my gifts. The only one that mattered, the only gift I remember, didn’t come in a box anyway.
Love. It is the only gift we really need, and it is the only one that is always available to us. No matter what we get, or don’t get, under the tree, the greatest gift of our life is already ours– the love of God, flowing through people, flowing out of us. In the darkest night and in the greatest need, we can call on that Love to be with us and to see us through. When we are most ashamed or most lonely, we can count on that Love to heal us and bring us peace. God’s Love is the grounding of our lives, and nothing we can do will ever change that. What a gift, indeed.
When Jesus was born we are told that he received three gifts from the Magi. They were expensive and exotic and impressive. But first he received something far more valuable: the loving touch of his mother and the tender watchfulness of his father. They were the human expressions of God’s Love, and they helped to set the course of his life.
This Christmas, look for the ways Love is being expressed in your life. Perhaps it is with friends or family or neighbors who care. Perhaps it is in activism that you see makes a difference in the world. Perhaps it is in simple words of kindness spoken from one stranger to another. Love is out there, to be seen and experienced. Love is in here, to be savored and shared. Just remember what I discovered so many years ago: it can never be contained in a box.
We all live in two worlds: the world of our everyday lives, filled with family and traditions, and the greater world, filled with people we do not know and events far from our front steps. Sometimes it is easy to keep them separate, and though the news may make us sad or anxious or even angry, we can close our eyes at night, safe in our own beds, insulated from the outside world.
Yet, this is not always so. As we prepared this week to light the second candle on the Advent wreath, we read again about two more young black men whose deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials have been inexplicably unpunished, and a world of pain intersects with ours. Our candle this week signifies “Peace,” and I could not in good conscious light it without connecting our yearning for peace with the reality of our world. We are, indeed, a people who walk in darkness – and we need a light that reminds us of the Way we are asked to walk.
Our two worlds, the one here in our sanctuary and the one out on the streets of our cities, must be one if we are to be the church. The racism that is embedded in our society and institutions must be seen and discussed and mourned and prayed about and acted on – right here at First Church, even as we celebrate the fellowship and love that make our small community so dear. The light from the candle of Peace must shine on both realities, for they are God’s, and they are ours.
Many of us will never know the feeling of being suspect just because of our race. Many of us will never know the fear of being stopped for a minor incident, knowing it could lead to our death. That is not our everyday world. But it is the world of too many of our sisters and brothers, and true peace cannot be ours until it is theirs, as well.
Thirty years ago the United Church of Christ proclaimed a witness named Just Peace.
“Emphasizing the inseparability of justice and peace, the UCC defined Just Peace as the “interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence … the vision of shalom, linking peace and justice. “At a time when our world seems so far from the holistic vision of shalom … we remain Advent people yearning for a world in which peace, a Just Peace, might swathe all our communities from Ferguson to Palestine.”
(Rev. Michael Neuroth, UCC Justice and Witness Ministries)
Last week we lit the candle of Hope. May the candle this week be our reminder that Christ’s peace must always be a Just Peace. When we light it, may it represent our prayers for a world in which we understand that each life, and each death, is bathed in the same light: God’s light, shining on in the midst of our one painful, broken, beloved world.