When the-night-before-Christmas-and-all-through-the-house ended, and visions of sugar plums faded with the morning light from our heads, sister Cindy and little Ricky dashed excitedly from our bedrooms. What to our wondering eyes should appear but a mound of gifts wrapped in festive cheer. Crisscrossed ribbons guarded each hidden treasure from our inquisitive fingers. We pinched the different colored shapes that were heaped under the tree. Some had our name attached…Oooh boy! Each package enticingly begged to be opened.
The angel declared, “You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth.” After the angel returned to heaven, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and found the newborn child gift-wrapped in bands of cloth. As the Son of the Most High, this babe was God’s gift to humankind. The Christ Child was God, wrapped in a human body and packaged in human existence. The tag on this package read, “Good news of great joy for all the people.”
The shepherds were thunderstruck, or perhaps we should say wonder-struck, by the message of the angel. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” The shepherds were overcome by joy that the long-expected Messiah had finally arrived. They were excited to herald the good news, and proud to be the first to adore the newborn king. But probably what astounded the shepherds most was the sign of the babe lying in a manger, as if he were food in a feeding trough! They might well have been shocked to see the Christ Child lying with the straw in the stone-hewn manger. The French still use “manger” for eating, as in “Quelque chose à manger?”
At Christmas, God satisfies our deepest hungers, both physical and spiritual. Feasting is certainly part of our Christmas heritage. Eating together is what we do, and it’s what brought us here this morning. Who will not sit down this Christmas at a table laden with delicious food?
This year’s call to dinner echoes dinners from Christmases past. I remember one holiday dinner shortly after Andrea and I were married. We lived in Spokane, where all four sets of grandparents lived. Two grandmothers seemed to equate the amount of food we ate with how much we loved them. This particular year, we finished a noon dinner with Grandma and Grandpa Rist in time to arrive for dinner at Grandma and Popo Skeels’ house. Afterwards, I groaned with love for them!
We all hunger for food, but we also hunger for happiness, for meaning, for love, for holiness. The urgency of our hunger might be wrapped in bands of polite society, but it is real. Our spiritual hunger is as powerful as the hunger of the beggars I encountered as a youth while living in West Africa. I still remember going to the store with Mom. A swarm of children and crippled adults circled our car. They pressed around us as we hurried toward the store, reached out their hands, and cried “dashy, dashy. dashy, dashy, dashy.” One man, whom everyone called the “crazy-man,” never begged. He appeared to be well cared for by his family. Most Nigerians were about five and a half feet tall, carried no extra fat, and had a moderate muscular build. The crazy-man was over six feet tall, held his head high, wore a big grin, and displayed impressive muscles by walking down the middle of the street stark naked. He could have used bands of cloth.
God’s gift of God, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, was born on Christmas to feed our souls and satisfy the hunger of the world. This Christmas in Haiti, members of our partner church of St. Patrick’s gather under the tin roof of their church-without-walls. Since they have no electricity, they waited until Christmas Day. They sit on the small benches brought from the classrooms. Despite the hunger they might feel in their bellies, their souls are satisfied, for the Christ Child feeds them with mounds of joy and plentiful hope. Their normal Sunday liturgy lasts two-and-a-half hours, so we can only imagine how long their Christmas celebration lasts. They come like shepherds from their fields, singing, clapping, dancing, and praying.
With great thanksgiving they join us at the feeding table. Together with them, we reach forth our hands like beggars, to be satisfied by the gift of God wrapped in bread and wine. For this is the Christ Mass. We join them in praising God for the birth of the Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord, by partaking of the bread of life and drinking deeply from the cup of salvation.
Let us feast at this manger-altar with our sisters and brothers around the world. Then we, too, will return home, glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen, as it had been told to the shepherds. Glory to God in the Highest!
The Rev. Rick Matters, Rector
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel, California