Lk 3:10-18; Phil 4:4-7; Zeph 3:14-18
I normally buy my groceries here in town, but last week I went down to Waitrose, because I wanted to see how ‘the other half’ lives -pretty good it seems! There were delicious looking battered prawns, a huge selection of chocolate cakes, and quality bourbon of the kind that is simply not available in Shaftesbury. And I began to understand why they say, "This Christmas, there's only one place to be: Waitrose".
And that point is really the only point I want to make today: what is "the only place to be" this Christmas? Well, as a priest, and basically just as a Christian!, I find the Waitrose claim to be highly presumptuous! Now I know I'm preaching to the converted, because you are already here in church, but "the only place to be" this Christmas is the place where you are already today, namely, in church. The meaning of Christmas can only be properly discovered by returning to the words that Christmas comes from: “Christ” and “Mass”. Actually, if we want to be in "the only place to be" this Christmas than we actually need to be very carefully avoiding the materialism that seems implicit in the Waitrose advertising slogan.
If preparing for Christmas is not primarily about going to Waitrose, then what is it about? If we would be ready to Christmas, if we would be ready to celebrate the coming of Christ, then what must we do? This is the same question was put to St John the Baptist 2000 years ago when the people wanted to know how to prepare for the FIRST coming of Christ, as we heard them asking in today's gospel, “What must we do?”
The answers of St John the Baptist strike me as surprisingly practical and surprisingly specific. He told the tax collectors, "exact no more than your rate". He told the soldiers, "no extortion! Be content with your pay!" And he told the people in general that they must share their possessions with those who had none. There's a very simple thread uniting each of these three pieces of advice, and it is a warning against materialism. It is perhaps ironic that 2000 years later the same type of advice needs to be given to us still today. If we would be ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas then we need to also cleanse our hearts of the materialism that can prevent our hearts being ready for Christ to come
The sad reality of much of our Christmas preparations is that we think too much about the things that money can buy for Christmas, and not enough about what really matters. What’s the point in buying my sister the best gift money can buy if I haven’t been considerate and loving to her in the preparation for Christmas?
It’s like getting all the decorations for the Christmas tree, but forgetting to get the tree itself, or just getting it as an afterthought –the last and most pathetic one left in the shop.
The true antidote to materialism, the true way to prepare for Christmas, is to remember the reason that today’s readings give us to rejoice. This is Gaudete Sunday, an ancient Latin name meaning ‘rejoice’, and the reason we are always given to rejoice in this the third week of Advent, is that “the Lord is very near” (Phil 4:4). This is what Christmas is all about, this is what we are preparing for. This is what sets Christianity apart from the other world religions:
We believe that not only is God real, not only does He love us, not only does He watch over each moment of our lives, but He is very NEAR to us –and not only in some vague spiritual way. What we recall at Christmas is that God became flesh, became physical, by fully becoming a little child in the manger of Bethlehem. This is the physical and visible confirmation of all the other ways we believe He is among us and near to us.
“The only place to be this Christmas” is near Him who came near to us in Bethlehem and comes near to us as often as we turn to Him. St. Paul tells us not to worry, the Lord is very near. As we rush around in this final week before Christmas, as we make all our material preparations, let’s try not to worry. Let’s make sure we take the time to rejoice in what we are preparing for, and remember the true spiritual meaning that makes it all worth while.