Recently one of my nieces became pregnant with her first baby. I shall never forget that moment when she told me with joy shining in her eyes, and showed me the baby’s heart beat on her phone. It was only 8 weeks from conception, a tiny, fragile little foetus, yet already the heart was beating courageously; a life was determined to be born into this world. She was so happy. Here was a precious gift to her and her family. And behind it, of course, was the gift of life, that gift which comes from God. It is this image of gift – a tiny baby’s heart-beat, that I find myself thinking about on this third day of the New Year.
Christmas is a time of gifts. We exchange gifts as a reminder that God gave us the amazing gift of his Son. In a few days’ time we will celebrate the coming of wise men from the east who presented gifts to Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh. What happened to those gifts? Is that what made it possible for Joseph to take his little family to Egypt and set up home there to escape Herod’s wrath?
Yet gifts are not always welcome. This past year has seen a different kind of visitor from the East bringing with it pain, sickness, sorrow and death. It has been a year like no other, at least for those of us who do not remember the Second World War. Yet, in the midst of the pain and sorrow we need to find the gift that God intends for us. God does not come to us only in happy events. The gift of his Son in Christmas culminated in the death of his Son on Calvary. Only then did people begin to understand what that gift was about. Only by looking hard at the Cross can we see the new hope of salvation from sin and death, and the glorious life of resurrection. If we don’t look at the Cross we won’t find the Resurrection. If we don’t look hard at Covid 19 we won’t see what gifts God has been giving us in this unpleasant wrapping.
“The word became flesh” and so my little great-nephew has come into the world. There are millions of babies in the world. They are as numerous as the sands on the seashore; yet each one is special and unique; each one is a gift from God. Each one has the promise, that unfulfilled future waiting to unfold. So today we look at this year and wonder what it will bring. What has Covid given us? For many people, Covid has brought suffering, pain, hardship and grief. That is hard, yet there are gifts in that. In hard times we often discover the love of others; we find courage we never knew was there. We think about the deeper meanings of our lives and how we could change them. As with all these millions of unique babies the gifts we receive are well known ones: kindness, courage, care for others. We change our values. It is no longer the celebrities and the mega rich who matter; it is the ordinary people, the ones who drive the buses, keep the shops open, deliver groceries through the lockdown. It is the nursing staff, the carers and cleaners. The gift is seeing how important they are, and valuing them more.
Many of you watching today have found new ways of praying, new ways of experiencing God’s presence as you have lived through the isolation. You have missed the sacraments and meeting with other Christians. Maybe that will make them more valuable in the future. Absence should make the heart grow fonder. We in CR have been fortunate. We were sad to lose our guests and not be able to visit parishes and friends. But we have been able to pray together and live together and have found in this core part of our life a new meaning, new life, a new direction, maybe, for the future. There is a gift here we have hardly begun to unpack.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” So my new great nephew has come to live among us, to reveal his personality, delight his parents, show us all again how to look at this world that he is seeing for the first time.
Is that what Jesus is doing? He is here, you know. He is not just a baby in a house in Bethlehem. He is closer to us than we are to each other. Seeing him takes time, and silence, and a readiness to be surprised. We see him in others. We see him in our thoughts. We see him showing us things we need to look at in a new way. The pandemic has made most of us think about our lives, our strange and sick society which values wealth more than love, which destroys the environment for the sake of economic gain. We see some things in a new light: for instance, the virus was caused chiefly by the bad treatment of animals in China, and was able to spread so quickly because of air travel. Is Jesus telling us something there?
The gift of Jesus in our lives is not hard to find. We don’t need to be very clever or even very spiritual. We need to be honest and ready to look at anything or anyone and see here is Jesus. Gifts are good and they are full of joy. Sometimes the gifts we get from God may seem like a burden. Once we start to use them they turn into a delight. It is not enough in this pandemic just to have good ideas. It’s not enough to talk about the evils we have discovered in our society, or the ways we as Christians could put them right. We have to act, to do something. Then we will find the joy.
Today actually is an important day for me. 37 years ago today I offered my solemn profession in CR to God. I was 37 years old. Some would think I was making a gift of my life to God. That’s probably what I thought at the time but it turned out differently. It has been God giving the gifts of amazing experiences to enjoy and people to love. Give God a chance; open your hands and be surprised what you get.
So, just like my little great nephew, the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father. What are we going to do with that gift?
Fr Nicolas CR
3rd January 2021