One Christmas many years ago when our boys were small, my wife pulled the big one on me. I had ordered a book on falconry from a friend of mine. I was really looking forward to delving into his abundant wisdom on the topic, but it didn't come and it didn't come and it didn’t come. Karisse was dismissive about it. “Oh, it will be here soon enough, don't worry about it.” She said.
Well in the rush and bustle of Christmas I did forget about it. On Christmas morning there was an enormous box under the tree with my name on it. Inside the box was another box, a little bit smaller, and also wrapped. Inside that one was another, and another and another until I finally got to an envelope at the bottom of the last box--with a clue in it! Eight clues later, with all three of my boys giggling with delight, I discovered the last box, inside of which was my book! The great trail of discovery was marked throughout the house with piles of wrapping paper and empty boxes!
What is it about wrapping presents? Why do we do so? The wrapper is certainly not the point of the present, it would be a present wrapped or not. Is it not merely in-the-way, a pretty inconvenience at best, or is there more? We recently shipped Christmas presents to our son and daughter-in-law in Minnesota along with something for our granddaughter (of course!) Seems what we sent her wasn't nearly as much fun as the Styrofoam peanuts used to pack it all! How cute it is when children get more taken by the wrapper than the present, but also how obvious a sign of immaturity!
Wrapping paper really is important in the final analysis. A wrapper at once indicates and hides a surprise. It points to something and yet at the same time hides it from view. and it invites our active participation in ripping it away to reveal the real treasure. In that sense, the story of the first Christmas season is a great big present for us to unwrap. Christmas only really becomes the birth of the Christ in our hearts when we rip away the paper to reveal the present within. There are three layers of paper that wrap up God’s present in the Christmas Story, and unwrapping each of them reveals a vital truth about the treasure within.
The first layer is the Stable, the manger and the Star. This represents our outer world, the world of senses, with special music and wonderful food and beautiful candle-light services. These are all really good, and like the red and green paper on our packages at home they have a way of getting us in "the Christmas Spirit." We all like the glitter and the tinsel and the songs and the food. Yet, we also know that Christmas is much more than that. When we look beyond and behind them, when we in a figurative way rip them away to find the treasure, we find that the Stable is where the Lamb of God sleeps, the Manger is His throne, and the Star is His celestial sign. When we rip the external trappings of Christmas down from first place prominence they suddenly take their proper place, as glowing signs pointing to the Wonder of the Ages!
The second layer is Joseph. Joseph obviously loved Mary, but when she turned up pregnant before they began to live together he had a problem. Such things were punishable by stoning in that day, and so, as St. Mathew tells us, he resolved to end the betrothal quietly so as not to cause scandal. That is because Joseph is a good man, who knows how to maintain a good public image. Obviously, though he married Mary, he had overestimated her. He could not really take her to wife now. This was the wise and compassionate way out. He was, after all, just as good at maintaining his ego as we are ours.
But then Gabriel appeared to him in a dream. Mary was not to be divorced, and the child was to be named Jesus--Yeshua, like Joshua of old, who would save God’s people. All of a sudden the paper of protecting his ego was ripped away by a divine call. He was to become the guardian of the Son of God, not unlike us, if we, too, will have the Christ child born within. Our previous efforts at self-protection must fall by the wayside, and our lot must be cast with this child.
The third layer is the Shepherds and Angels. These men were good at what they did. They knew how to attend to ewes during the lambing season. They knew how to drive away the wolves and the jackals. They knew how to protect their jobs—to deliver to the owner of the sheep a well and healthy flock. Not unlike us, they were good at building their bank accounts and their retirement packages. And these things are not bad, they just last only as long as our lives, nothing more.
But the angels' message suddenly changed all that. Ripped away was their professional concern, torn from prominence were their promotions and IRAs. They became heralds of the coming of the Son of God. (If we were so bold at proclaiming what we know people would wonder as well!) When we, too, see our professions, not as self-definers, but as stages on which to discover and then proclaim our eternal hope, then in our hearts, too, will be born the Son of God.
Mary, once again, offers us great wisdom, the one who ponders all these things in her heart. She quietly opens the present and is amazed. She does not define herself as the Mother of God. (The Church would do that later and rightly so.) She was just taken up with the great mystery and drama of it all! She does not measure how good a mother she is. (We do that, mother, or father, or clerk or banker or soldier.) She just ponders these things in her heart. She is not concerned with the ignominy of giving birth in a stable. (We are the ones so taken up with circumstances.) She just gives birth to the Son of God and plays host with equal grace to shepherds and Wise Men alike.