Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Advent

"It’s the season for giving!" How often have we heard that recently? We certainly hear it from merchandisers, who want us to buy gifts. That season for giving began after Thanksgiving with "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday." But the "season for giving" goes beyond that, doesn’t it? People seem more inclined to give in order to help others this time of year. Many charities report that most of their donations come in November and December. And it’s not just because people are looking for year-end tax breaks.

There’s a tradition- even an expectation- of giving during this season, and it’s not always linked anymore with our Christian celebration of Christ’s birthday. Now it’s just a part of the "holiday spirit" of peace, joy, and goodwill. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing that. I’m not going to knock anyone or group that makes a good faith effort to reach out to people in need. But, I would like to make the point that this "season for giving" wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the reason for the season: the birth of Jesus, God’s gift to us. The tradition of giving at Christmastime would never have a reason, if not for Christ. Think about it: would society have established a special season of peace and goodwill in which people open their hearts to give to those in need, without a religious motivation? I seriously doubt it.

I’ve read on the popular Beliefnet website that there’s a great deal of frustration these days among atheists because they don’t have their own holidays, and they’re conflicted about how to celebrate those with religious origins. So what do they celebrate? Some suggest "World Darwin Day" on February 12. Another proposal is "World Humanist Day." Some- with tongue-in-cheek- say "April Fools Day." And yes, there is the Winter Solstice, which arrives at the same time as Christmas. But in the discussions and proposals I read, there was no stress on giving to the less fortunate.

You may have seen on Metro busses and trains ads from the American Humanist Association which say: "No God? No problem! Just be good for goodness’ sake. You can be good without a belief in God." And at one level, we could agree with them. We don’t believe that atheists are without compassion or goodness. Even though they may not believe in God- at least not yet, anyway- they’re still made in the image of God. They can have common decency, empathy, compassion, even great generosity. There are indeed a handful of atheist charities.

But the truth is that we are most like God when we give, because God gives. God is love, and one way to spell love is G-I-V-E. What does that mean in practice? If we don’t believe in God, we’re not going to try to be like God. And as a result, we will give far less. Study after study has shown that deeply religious people give much more in terms of donations and volunteer service that non-religious people. Faith in God can and should inspire us to kindness and generosity.

One thing I do in my ministry is help those training to become deacons learn how to preach. Last year, I heard a group of candidates give practice Advent homilies. And each one of them struck a common note: Advent is a time for us to prepare for the coming of Christ. How can we do that, they asked? By giving! They mentioned different charities that we might give to or help with, and one suggested making acts of love toward those who may be sad or lonely this time of year. And that’s all good advice. Those are things we might do, not just at Christmastime, but all year ‘round.

But since Christmas is coming, is there something else that we, as Christians, might be able to give? There are certainly a lot of "gift suggestions" out there these days! But may I be so bold as to suggest one more? It doesn’t cost any money, I assure you. Today’s Scripture readings which speak of Mary and the birth of a child suggest what it is. And it comes to us from none other than St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis loved Christmas. He was born, over 800 years ago, into a relatively wealthy family. But his mother, who was very devout, knew that God had something special planned for her son. So she made sure that he was born like Jesus was- in a barn, surrounded by animals. When he was an adult, he created the first "living nativity," as we call them today. He filled a manger with hay outside on Christmas Eve, 1223. He brought in cows and donkeys to stand beside it. And in the manger, he placed a friend’s baby, and had the mother and father stand beside, playing Mary and Joseph. People came from all over, holding candles and singing songs, to see how the Lord was born in such a humble place. Then they all went to Midnight Mass, and Francis preached on the great gift of Jesus’ birth.

But Francis wanted people not just to hear about Jesus’ birth, and see a demonstration of what it was like. He wanted Jesus to be brought into our world over and over again. And he said that it was up to us to make that happen. He wrote a called the "Second Letter to the Faithful." In it, he said this: "We are mothers of Christ when we carry him in our heart and in our body by divine love and with a pure and sincere conscience. We give birth to him through holy works, which should shine forth as an example to others."

What Francis was saying is that, as Mary gave birth to Jesus some 2,000 years ago, we can bring Christ into our world over and over, through our witness, through our works of compassion, through our love. During this "season of giving," what greater gift could we possibly give than the Son of God himself? As we prepare to celebrate his birth, let’s you and I give birth to him as well, once again.

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