In homes throughout the world, neatly wrapped (or in my case poorly wrapped) presents, sit under decorated trees just waiting to be torn open, either tonight, tomorrow, or if you are a really unlucky kid, January 6. The tradition of gift-giving as part of the Christmas season is an important one. It recalls the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child and more importantly, it recalls God’s gift to the world in the incarnation of His Son. It is a reminder to us of the importance of following the charity and generosity of our Lord.
Wrapping those gifts, however, seems to be more for our own personal enjoyment. Who doesn’t enjoy the look on someone’s face as they peel back the paper on that perfect gift or enjoy the sheer torment of the seven-year-olds of the world as we test their ability to cope with delayed gratification?
Let me suggest that the surprise is as essential to the Christmas story as the gift is. The story of our Lord’s nativity, the story of His birth and incarnation, the story that gathers us here this afternoon is rife with surprises. Jesus’s ancestry is full of some shady characters, tyrants, and sinners of every sort. The King of Kings and Lord of Lord’s is not born in a palace with royal attendants and physicians, but in a manger, to the son of a carpenter and his young wife. That marriage itself almost didn’t happen. Joseph finds his bethroed, pregnant and he knows the child is not his. The rules are pretty simple on this one, they need to separate. Yet it is into this seemingly clear-cut scenario that the Lord sends his messenger to tell Joseph that something deeper is at play. Where we see and presume sin, God surprises us with His grace.
This, friends, is the foundation of the hope and joy of Christmas. That no matter how dark, how broken, how messed up our world might seem, God is capable of bringing grace, and light, and life. Even when we are sure that there is no hope, that there will be no peace, God finds ways to surprise us. Even when all we see is a poor young couple, relegated to a stable with the animals, God sends us the Savior of the world.
There’s no doubt that these past few months have had their fair share of difficult moments: 1.7 million deaths from a global pandemic that has drawn on for nearly a year, an election full of rancor and animosity, nations that continue to seek to resolve disputes through armed conflict and terror. The outlook at times has appeared bleak and hope perhaps difficult to come by.
Yet this Christmas invites us to consider how we might be surprised by God. It invites us to ask ourselves how God’s grace might be present in our lives in those places that are unexpected, in places where we might only see brokenness, sadness, and sorrow. Even when we expect nothing but the worst, God can and often will surprise us with His presence. It is our faith and trust in that promise that allows us to navigate the darkness in our world, it is our hope in Christ’s power to enter our world, take on our flesh, and gift us with eternal life, even in the midst of our own brokenness and sin that allows us to live lives of joy, lives that call others to the way of the Gospel.
The hope and joy that mark our Christmas celebrations are not meant to be temporary distractions from the world around us. The goal isn’t to fill our lives with enough lights and song, candy canes, and egg nog so that we forget the darkness around us. Rather, much more profoundly, our celebration of Christmas enables us to walk in the midst of darkness because we are full of the light of Christ. In a few short days, the lights will come down, the music will leave the radio, and the tree will either be back in storage or turned into mulch, but our joy does not end there because we know Christ continues to reign, God continues to be God, God still surprises us with his grace.
For many of us Christmas looks and feels different this year. Family gatherings have been replaced by zoom calls, Christmas sweaters with Christmas masks, and the ability to buy gifts and presents diminished due to lost jobs and economic cutbacks. Yet even in this very different Christmas, God continues to surprise us and he continues to give us reasons to hope. Even this Christmas, God still desires to enter our world and to save us. May our celebration of the gift of the Christ child, both in a stable in Bethlehem, continue to nourish us in living the Gospel and to look for the ways that God seeks to surprise us each day.
This reflection for Christmas was written by Fr. Brian Ching, C.S.C., who as a member of the United States Province of Priests and Brothers serves as the Director of the Old College Undergraduate Seminary and the Rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. He gave this homily at a Christmas Eve Mass at the Basilica.