On a cold Alaskan Christmas Eve when our kids were young, we planned to leave for the early children’s Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage. Afterward, we’d have a festive dinner and try to get everyone to bed early despite the evening’s excitement.
Like parents everywhere, we had noted the kids’ Christmas lists, listened when people asked them that inevitable question, “What is Santa bringing you?” and read between the lines about what they’d really enjoy. Without being overly materialistic, Santa had done well. All was wrapped and ready.
In this spirit, I casually asked five-year-old Mike, “So, what are you most excited for Santa to bring?”
Without missing a beat, Mike said, “A cowboy vest.”
What? His father and I looked at each other incredulously. A cowboy vest had been barely mentioned once. I’d seen some cheap plastic vests that came in sets, with guns which I didn’t want. Besides that, Mike never played cowboys. With all due respect to Woody from Toy Story, has anybody really played cowboys since I was a kid? A vest was not wrapped and ready.
A short distance from our house was an upscale toy store, long gone now, on Huffman Road. I had seen a child’s vest there, a beautiful suede concoction with fringe. Roy Rogers would have been proud of it, but even Roy might have balked at the price tag. I passed on it.
Now, with a bit of time to spare before Mass, Mike’s dad dashed for the toy store in hopes it was still open. That suede vest was probably the last thing sold there that Christmas.
Inevitably, the vest was hardly ever worn. What possessed Mike to mention a vest as his most desired gift? Who knows the mind of a five-year-old?
But I do know the mind of a parent. Christmas brings out the sentimental, extravagant, overwhelming desire to give that which is most wanted, something that will delight a little heart.
The O’Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” captures the same desire to please the beloved at Christmas. The young man sells his cherished watch to buy his wife the beautiful hair combs she had admired; meanwhile, she sells her long, stunning hair to buy a chain for the watch she doesn’t realize has been sold for her benefit. Each sacrificed their most prized possession to please the other.
If we truly believe what the Gospel of John teaches — that God is love, love is the very nature of this Mystery — then we know that this desire to please the beloved is the essential message of Christmas.
God had an overwhelming desire to give, and Christ was the most precious gift God had to offer us. For anyone who grew up with an image of a judgmental, harsh, remote God, Christmas should wipe away that false God forever.
The God of Christmas is the God of extravagant giving, the God of the late afternoon dash to the toy store, the God of the prodigal’s father who smiles joyfully as a wayward son appears on the far-off hills.
Advent challenges us to accept this gift of Christ into our hearts and understand the overwhelming love with which it was offered.
But Advent also reminds us that our desire to give is born of this same love, this spark of the divine within us. God asks us to foster this extravagant love until it expands and reaches out and can’t be contained, not just for our own children and loved ones, but for a whole world crying out for love.