Just as the glittering commercialism of this season can blind us to the mystery of Christmas, so the accelerated pace of life can make it difficult for us to patiently await the coming of the Lord at Christmas. In the gospel today, our attention is centred not only on the fact that Jesus is the Messiah but on what kind of Messiah he is. Who are you expecting this Christmas, and for what do you hope?
If, like me, you happen to be a fan of classic American literature you may have read the short story ‘The Gift of the Magi’, written by William Sidney Porter (writing under the pen name O. Henry); it’s a touching story about a young engaged couple who love one another so much that they wanted to express their love by giving each other the perfect Christmas gift; a gift that would complement the wonderful gifts each one already possessed. The man’s most prized possession was a gold pocket watch and he wanted a gold chain on which to display his most valued possession. The woman prized her beautiful long hair and she longed for a special comb to show off the beauty of her hair. Like most engaged couples neither of them had much money but each found a way of purchasing the gift to fulfil the desire and the longing of the other. When they opened their gifts on Christmas Day, they realised just how much they did love one another. The man had sold his watch in order to buy her a most beautiful comb, and she had cut off her hair and sold it to buy him the gold watch chain.
This story reminds us of the concept of sacrificial giving and we might ask ourselves today: what gift am I most excited about presenting to someone this Christmas? What did I have to give up, what did I have to sacrifice in order to be able to give this gift? What did it cost me? Also, what gift do I most wish to receive this Christmas? What am I expecting to receive? Some of you may have a long list, but in the readings for today’s Mass, the Church is encouraging us not to miss the real meaning of the celebration of Advent and Christmas. We may even need to remind ourselves that Christmas doesn’t begin until 25th December; and yet for so many people Christmas began in mid-October and will end abruptly, expensively, and probably with a hangover, on Christmas Day itself. When I lived in Oregon, several of my neighbours would have their Christmas trees dumped on their front lawns for the trash men to collect on Boxing Day.
The evangelist Saint Matthew knew that some people could not accept Jesus as the Messiah because Our Lord just didn’t meet everyone’s expectations about what the Messiah would be like. The common understanding among the Jews was that the Messiah would be a great warrior figure who would kick out the Romans who had invaded and occupied the Promised Land of Israel.
John the Baptist had scores of people coming to him to see if he was the Messiah. John sends them to Jesus to ask if He is the One they are expecting. John isn’t the Messiah but his question in the gospel today focuses on the difference between the kind of Messiah that was expected, and the kind of Messiah Our Lord turned out to be.
Our Lord’s answer focuses on his saving ministry. The blind, and those who can see, are invited to see by faith. The crippled are invited to rise from their mats and lean on him. Sinners are forgiven, and social outcasts are repeatedly invited back. Our Lord constantly appeals to the hearts of those whose ears are closed to the Good News. Our Lord’s own resurrection reminds us that death will not have the last word in our lives, and his raising of Lazarus demonstrated his power over the dead.
Even today, the poor in spirit receive the risen Christ as Good News. Our Lord is not the politically correct Messiah, but he announces that we need not be alien or exiled from the Kingdom of God. And so, what do you expect for Christmas? Is Jesus the One you expect or are you looking for someone else?
In the second reading Saint James writes to those of us who have accepted Jesus as the Lord of our lives, but are now finding it difficult to wait for God’s word to be fulfilled in a world that expects instant results.
If you recall, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord warned his disciples that part of life in the Kingdom would involve being misunderstood, it would involve being mocked and persecuted, it would involve sharing Our Lord’s journey: the journey to Calvary, the Way of the Cross. It’s not easy to wait in joyful hope in the midst of a culture accustomed to instant gratification.
But Saint James motivates us to steady our hearts and to be patient. He reminds us that Our Lord and all the prophets who prepared his way are models for us in sharing the hardships of this world. Our Lord told us quite plainly that it wouldn’t be easy for us in the world, but he also told us to take courage because he has overcome the world, and we can do so too.
If we are going to make any progress in our lives, both spiritually and materially, we need to realise that spiritual renewal is needed if we are to truly celebrate the mystery of Christmas. Jesus is the one for whom the whole world is waiting. Jesus is the one for whom all hearts are longing. If Jesus is indeed the one you are expecting, if you have opened your heart to the mystery of Christmas, then Jesus wants you to witness to him as did the prophets and all the saints.