One of the lovely things about the birthday of Jesus is that the best present we can give him is to give presents to others; and by presents I don’t just mean things we buy in the shops, but more importantly things we actually do for one another. And when we do that, when, as Isaiah says so beautifully in our 1st reading (61:1-2.10-11) we “bind up hearts that are broken”; then the more we give the more God comes and fills us with his love, and wraps us in a “cloak of integrity”. Yes, we tend to think that when God comes to us, to support us in the trials of life that we all have, he simply comes within us ; but Isaiah reminds us the he also surrounds us like putting on a warm coat and hat on a wintry day.
This is why we can rejoice in the Lord, even when things are difficult for us. I always retranslate our 2nd Reading (1 Thess 5:16-24) because we cannot always be happy. Sadness is part of what it means to be human, to care deeply about our fellow human beings who are suffering and need our aid. Someone asked me the other day why he had to suffer so much, and that was my answer. If we do not suffer, then we do not care. I watched a Video clip from the UK Lifeboat Charity (RNLI) and was moved almost to tears by the sight of people running from their work to respond to the call of the Lifeboat. That is what it means to be human, and although it almost made me cry, it also made me rejoice. “Rejoice” says St Paul and “Pray constantly”.
Think what it feels like when an Ambulance or a Fire Engine zooms past with its blue lights flashing and its siren blaring. It is an amazing mixture of sadness for the people who are in trouble, and yet excitement and joy that someone is racing to help them. It should surely be the same when we think of suffering of other kinds. “For all things give thanks” doesn’t mean that we should thank God for suffering; rather it means that we should look beyond the suffering to the many acts of help and care that are taking place, to bring to those poor people some comfort and support. This is surely why most Christians in the run-up to Christmas are considering what we can do to help others, what charity we might send some money to, instead of spending all of it in the shops!
One person told me she was going to spend 48 hours over this period working in London for Crisis at Christmas feeding the poor in this festive season. Yes, there is always something more that we can do, something more that we can give in response to God’s love; and St Paul reminds us today that our journey towards perfection only takes place if we are helped along this road by God himself – “May the God of peace make you perfect and holy.” Well there’s something to mention when we make our Confession before Christmas, how much more we could do that we have not yet done, how much more we can give that we have not yet given. How much more we should be open to the God of peace working in our lives.
I always get a little irritated by these big charity campaigns – like the BBC Children in Need Appeal – that run at this time of the year. Why? Because I think “Why can’t people give to charity without all this hoo-ha?” But then I say to myself, “All of us need to be jerked out of our sleep by such things. It is so easy to think nice thoughts and not actually to turn them into real action. To think about that charity I should give to, and never get round to doing it” That’s precisely why we Catholics have so many 2nd Collections throughout the year. We all need constant reminders.
Our Gospel however (John 1:6-8.19-28) reminds us of something else, that is that when we do give, when we do do something good and caring, we can easily get more than a bit complacent about how kind we have been ; to think of ourselves as somehow better than those “other people” who are busy spending money (as we think) on themselves.
John the Baptist was a very holy man doing a wonderful job of persuading people to turn from their selfish ways and become better human beings. Crowds of people flocked to hear him preach, and no doubt told him what a great job he was doing, and how much they had been helped, and so on. But his example to us is far greater than that, because instead of thinking highly of himself (as we might do), he says “No! I am not anyone special. I am certainly not the Christ.” Then he does what we should do whenever we do good. He points beyond himself – to God. I am just – “a voice” – he says “Make a straight way” – for what? “Make a straight way……………. for the Lord.”
Actually Jesus does the same. We know him as Our Lord and God, but even though he is the Christ, the one often proclaimed by others as “The Holy One of God”, he deliberately will not promote himself. He often actually tells people not to talk about him, and not to tell others about some healing that he has performed. God himself acts in this way. He does a most amazing thing. He chooses to show his love for us by becoming one of us, he gives himself in love. You might think that this marvellous action of the invisible eternal power underlying the Universe should happen to the sound of trumpets, with crashes of thunder and lightening etc etc. But instead he is born quietly with hardly anyone to see, to an unknown woman hidden in a stable.
Such is the way of the God we worship, and in this we rejoice, we give thanks, and try to reflect that love in our own lives.