It’s tradition. Christmas means gifts. They come in green packages with bows, in red stockings on a fireplace. They are just what somebody always wanted—even if sometimes that is a too-kind exaggeration. I hope your presents truly are what you always wanted. As I ask you to think about a gift far greater than anything you can unwrap.
Thirty years after Mary held her Son for the first time in the hamlet of Bethlehem, people were criticizing Him for acting friendly to individuals whom the proper personages in town held in contempt. He was talking to sinners as if they deserved respect. The paragons of uprightness looked at this with disdain.
He replied with a story about a man—a citizen with property, with farm animals aplenty, and with enough wealth to relieve his two sons of the need to work hard for all their lives.
The younger son was in a hurry. He walked in to his father’s room one day and demanded all the money he would get in the will. He wanted it right then and there. For some reason the father handed him the cash and sadly watched him disappear over the horizon. Note with care what happened next. The son had the time of his life with money his father had taken a life to gather. And one day he found himself with nothing, holding down a job in a pigsty, famished.
His options were clear. Either stay among the swine and starve. Or go home and ask his father to take him back, not as a beloved son but as a servant. He decided to try option two.
When the lost son appeared on the road in his unwashed rags, any respectable person would expect the father to tell him to keep right on going; to say something like “One strike and you’re out, Junior.” Or maybe, “You had your chance, and you blew it.” But the father ran to the son, hugged him tight, brought out clean clothes, gave him presents and threw the biggest party the town had seen in years. One word for what happened is mercy. It made no sense to the older son who had never misbehaved, but the young man was back in the family as if he had never left and never thrown away a sizeable chunk of his father’s fortune.
The story appears in a Gospel reading once every three years in Lent. So what does a parable we read in church during Lent have to do with Christmas?
In truth, everything. Take for a moment the part of the tale where the father is standing at the door, looking down the road when the son appears. Jesus doesn’t say, but you get the impression that the father has been watching there a long time.
Don’t look now, but guess whom the lost son stands for. He represents me. And you. In fact, the world, all of us in dire need of mercy.
And who’s been waiting for us a long time?
God created, gave us the lovely earth He designed and made us His heirs. And what did we? We left Him, misused His gifts. We wandered off into the darkness of sin.
God could have said, “One strike and you’re out.” Instead, God went one further on the loving father in the story. He came after us. In Mary’s Son. Notice the way God did it. Mary held her Son in her arms, a helpless child. Thirty years or so later she held Him in her arms again; only He was lifeless at the foot of the cross. God came in search of us by becoming one of us, starting as a baby. And lived a life for us. And died a horrendous death for us. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”
That is the gift of gifts. To the supposedly sensible persons among us, the young man’s father and the God who appeared in Jesus appear to be impractical, indulgent, prodigal parents. But remember that the young man in the story could have stayed in the pigsty. And we can stay away from God who so loved the world that He gave His Son. And God is so respectful of our freedom that He doesn’t force us to take His gift, any more than the father in the story forced the son to stay home.
I hope you’ll ask yourself this question as, in this Year of Divine Mercy, we honor the birth of Mary’s Son. Will you accept the gift Jesus holds out to you: reconciliation and membership in His kingdom? If you need it, will you come to Him for forgiveness and a welcome overflowing with love in confession? Will you be back here this coming Sunday and on the New Year holy day honoring his Mother and the following Sunday, to continue to let Him celebrate His love for you? Nobody will force you or me to do any of these things. As the son could have stayed away, so can we; it’s our choice.
But the moment we decide for good and all to come home, Mary’s Son—Divine Mercy incarnate—with His wounded feet will run out to greet us, and with His wounded hands give us a hug. And lovingly welcome us to His table.
And then we will know what “Blessed Christmas” means.
Father Lynch serves as senior administrator of Immaculate Conception parish in Woodbourne. Ordained a priest of the archdiocese in 1965, he holds a doctorate in Philosophy in Classics and a master’s in Divinity.