When I was a kid, Christmas morning always went the same way in my family.
I’d get up around 5:00 a.m. Maybe 5:30.
Unfortunately, my parents would not.
You see, for all the years when it counted most, we went to “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center on Christmas Eve, and so, by the time we got home, it was always well after midnight, which even then was well past their bedtime – and so they were firm in their commitment to a Christmas morning that began no earlier than 6:00 a.m.
Now that I’m a parent, myself, I understand this.
But when I was small, this meant the longest half-hour of the year, while I sat in bed, waiting to hear the sound of my mother brushing her teeth.
That wasn’t easy.
But it was just the beginning. You see, as I got older, they added certain…conditions…to their 6 a.m. wake-up call.
They were willing to get up at six. But.
But the coffee had to be ready.
But the tree had to be plugged in.
But the radio had to be on WQXR—“The Radio Stations of the New York Times”—and not on some sort of “Jingle Bell Rock” type station, which is what I liked, and it had to be playing no louder than “4,” which was too soft for me.
But the wood needed to be brought in for the fire in the fireplace.
If you had happened by our home sometime around seven, with everyone in their bathrobes and slippers, opening presents, nursing a mug of cofee with a cheery fire blazing and a little soft music in the background, you would have thought we were something out of the Ozzie and Harriet family Christmas album.
But at ten before six…trust me, I thought it was something out of the opening scenes of “Cinderella.”
There was a year when a faint dusting of snow had fallen overnight, and I remember hoping that nobody would much notice it until we were opening presents, because I was convinced that my father would have me out there, shoveling.
That was a ridiculous thing to think. You could have cleared a path out there with a Dustbuster. More importantly, my father wasn’t like that. But I did think it.
Even so, Cinderella or not, we always had a great Christmas. Nothing over the top, but I always got what I most wanted and plenty of other things, besides.
But our family was small, just the three of us, and so no matter how slowly we went, or how many times there were refills on coffee, or a break to try on something to see if it fit, it just didn’t take very long to open our presents.
And I remember one Christmas, when I was coming to the end of my pile of gifts, and I actually thought to myself, “I can’t believe it is 365 days until next Christmas.”
I’m sure, somewhere, the ghost of R.H. Macy must have smiled when he heard that.
Christmas never lasts quite long enough, does it?
In my family, the wrapping paper came right off of the present and went straight into the fire, and so it didn’t take long before festivity and mystery and possibility had silently slipped back up the chimney, and three neat little piles of things, one for each of us, had taken their place.
Christmas began at 6:00. The vacuum cleaner was back in the closet by 10:00.
By New Year’s Day at the latest, our tree was at the curb, and the ornaments were back in the basement for their eleven-month nap.
And so, as early as Christmas day itself, as the dawn’s early light gave way to the fuller light of day, the world as we knew it had already started to return, and if we were a little richer for it, then clearly, we were also a little poorer for it, too.
It was almost like a lunar eclipse—here only for a moment.
So much of the pleasure of Christmas is the pleasure of anticipation.
Giving and receiving are like that.
But you know, as I think about it now, something else occurs to me.
We loved each other too much to ever ask the question aloud, but it wouldn’t have been out of place to wonder if something as brief as Christmas could really make a difference in our lives—or if it could really make a difference in our common life as a family.
There are a lot of ways to answer that question.
It was precious time spent together. It was a way to show how much we loved one another, and how carefully we studied one another to figure out each person’s “perfect gift.” Its rituals were good for us and made our family stronger.
That’s all true.
But it’s still hard to put your finger on exactly what kind of difference it made.
In our Scripture this morning, Paul is asking a similar question.
Our reading from his letter to the Galatians is by no means a “classic” Christmas text – there is no mention of the manger, nor of the shepherds, nor of the wise men.
He is speaking theologically—philosophically—rather than telling a story the way the Gospels do.
But he is eager to tell us what Christ’s coming meant—what it means—and so he writes:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5).
Then he goes on to say: “Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child, then also an heir, through God.”
Paul wants us to understand that the coming of Jesus represents a new possibility for us – that we will be no longer slaves of the old world, but adopted children, even heirs of God, which is the remarkable promise of the incarnation, and why we faithful people are supposed to be singing “joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
After all, if you trust that promise, what greater joy could there possibly be?
But then it turns.
After reaffirming the promise, Paul asks two pointed questions of the Galatians.
He writes: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (Gal 4:9-10).
And I want to pause there, because Paul is asking our very same question about Christmas.
Given that Jesus came, he suggests, what difference did it make?
The gift has been sent, and the gift has been opened. Now what?
Is it just business as usual? Or has something truly changed about us, and the world, and where we go from here?
Will we move forward…go on our way rejoicing, like the shepherds, or home by another way, like the magi….or will we turn back to what he calls “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits”?
The poet W.H. Auden, at the opening of his poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” puts it this way:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,/Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –/Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic./The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,/And the children got ready for school….
Once again/As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed/To do more than entertain it as an agreeable/Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,/Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,/The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The poem goes on from there.
But its opening lines recall Paul’s questions: Is that all we are to be? Are we no more than promising children who cannot keep God’s word for long?
Paul knew that, despite all appearances to the contrary, something truly was different.
He saw that something had permanently shifted as the world stood in the light of Christmas.
Something had changed.
Friends, in the light of Christmas, we see that God has given us his own self.
Will our lives show that we’ve been changed or not?
That is the real question of Christmas morning.
Sometimes, as we stand there among the gifts, and the breakfast plates, and the wrapping paper all in a pile all over the place, it seems ungracious to wonder what’s next.
But it is not.
Making sure our lives speak is the only way to live in the light of grace.
It is the only way to show thanks for the very greatest gift that was, is, or ever shall be.