A Christmas Celebration
written by Rev Gary Heard

Our Christmas celebration each year is filled with surprise and intrigue. We never know who will join us around the lunch table as we celebrate together. But it was not always so.

Christmas Day once began with breakfast at the home of a relative, from which we left to attend our local church service. When the last of the Herald Angels had warbled its Christmas tunes, we headed off to join one of our families for lunch and exchange of gifts. As we shared a long and
filling lunch, we told the old family stories and caught up with each other's news of the past year. Although the food had seemed to barely settled in the stomach, occasionally helped by a game of back yard cricket, we were on the road again, to join the other half of the family for an evening meal. By the end of the day, both stomach and head felt the same way – as if we had crammed too much into too little. We would arrive home late in the evening exhausted. Perhaps the only connection with the story of Jesus’ birth was a level of identification with Mary and Joseph at the end of their long trek from Galilee to Nazareth.

Years of preaching the Christmas story had brought me to the point of realising this disconnect: the very people whom Jesus was born amongst found no place in our celebration of the event. The one for whom no room could be found seemed to be treated the same way in our day. Jesus, who reached out to the marginalised and outcast, was not reflected in our glut of food, gifts and travel.

We made a decision one year to change it all, in order that we might better reflect the meaning of Christmas in our own celebration of it. We determined to remain at home, and open our house and table to those who would otherwise celebrate Christmas alone. Sometimes we are wont to overlook the pain of the day for many people in our community: those who have no family, those who are separated from those they love by force of circumstance, people who face their first Christmas without a loved one who had died during the year. A number of years ago, MBF reported the incidence of people who booked themselves into hospital so that they might not spend Christmas alone. If Joseph and Mary were given no place to stay, with the result that Jesus was born in a stable, we realised that to truly understand the meaning of Christmas, we had to open ourselves to express the welcome for the stranger and traveler.

Through the intervening years we have welcomed a diverse array of people around our table: Hindu, Buddhist, student, elderly, newly arrived immigrants, even whole families who would otherwise be on their own. One year we were joined by two international students who we met on Christmas morning, sitting in a nearby local park, having no other place to go for the day. Through the years we have heard first-hand stories of people whose lives have taken them to places we could only begin to imagine, and found a rare warmth, humour and grace. We still journey in the evening to our families, rehearsing the many memories and stories which have shaped us through the years, and catching up on all that has happened since we last met. We cherish these with a renewed insight into the sense of place and identity we carry. But we also enter it knowing that we have entertained angels over lunch, and have understood afresh how so many people could have missed seeing the Christ-child in the Bethlehem rush of the day.

In this conscious attempt to reshape our celebration of Christmas to reflect the meaning of Jesus’ birth, our three children have learned to appreciate the human face of a stranger, and to realise that the greatest gift to share is the gift of love and joy, opening not just a wrapped present – but our hearts to others.

December 24, 2004
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