Many children spend the early days of December drawing up a list of gifts they want for Christmas.  Usually one of these gifts is clearly designated as the most desirable of all.  Something similar even happens after Christmas.  When the Christmas tree and all the gifts are put away for another year, usually one particular present stands out as best of all.  In my childhood there were two such gifts.  One was a Lionel train set, something I greatly desired before Santa’s arrival.  The other was a surprise, a beautiful Nativity set, which still sits under the Christmas tree at my sister’s home back in Chicago.

On the second Sunday of Advent, I was invited to attend the performance of “A Christmas Story” at the Gerding Theater in Portland’s Pearl District.  To be honest, I didn’t know the story well because I never had seen the movie on which it was based, a comedy released back in 1983.  What motivated my attendance was the fact that a Cathedral sixth-grader, Jack Clevenger, was playing the role of young 9-year-old Ralphie who wanted only one thing for Christmas — an official Red Ryder BB Rifle.  The play was great fun and that particular Christmas story brought to mind a host of Christmas stories I have shared or witnessed or heard throughout the years.  Right now we are writing another Christmas story. We all wonder how it will be remembered in years to come.

The Christmas celebrations of childhood blend together as a kind of festive collage.  I can’t separate the incidents of one Christmas from another very accurately, but I do remember with great satisfaction the eager anticipation that filled our home as the Christmas tree was decorated, cookies were baked, presents were placed under the tree and the music of Christmas filled the air in preparation for our celebration of Christmas Mass. 

Back when I was a grade school student, it was considered a great privilege to be assigned as an altar server for one of the Christmas Masses.  Nowadays it’s hard to find a youngster who’s available to serve!  Folks travel so much.  They also celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve.  When I was an eighth grader I was assigned to serve the 9 a.m. Mass and I was thrilled.  By the time we woke up on that Christmas morning, so much snow had fallen during the night that my dad was unable to get his car out of the garage.  We were unable to make it to church on time for me to serve that Mass.  What a disappointment! 

But I do remember how much fun it was to go out and shovel all the snow and then walk to church for a later Mass with my family.  Back then, because of Bing Crosby and his hit tune “White Christmas,” I always delighted when the ground was white on Dec. 25.  The great surprise when I missed my chance to serve Christmas Mass was how absolutely exhilarating it was to trudge through the snow on foot and greet all the others who were making their way to Mass in honor of the newborn King.

Then there was the Christmas of 1974 when I was a parochial vicar at Precious Blood Church in Chicago.  It was my first Christmas on Chicago’s west side.  All had gone well in the celebration of midnight Mass.  The pastor preached in English and I gave a brief homily in Spanish for the bilingual assembly.  Both choirs, English and Spanish, did a great job of leading us in song.  As I was standing in the back of the church after Mass greeting people and wishing them well for their family celebrations, a young man crawled back into church, bleeding profusely from a knife wound.  An argument had taken place on the steps of the church after Mass and one young man knifed another, who on Christmas morning died in the hospital. 

How hard it was to celebrate the remaining Christmas Masses that day with joy and hope in our hearts.  It was all a striking reminder that, right from the very start, Christmas has not always been celebrated under the best of circumstances.  After all, the newborn Christ child was placed in a trough where animals fed.  His parents fled with him to Egypt because a deranged king was seeking his life.  Right from the start Jesus walked with all who suffer and grieve.  He still does today and it’s good for us to remember that, for many of our sisters and brothers, that’s the way their Christmas will be this year.

The stories could go on and on, but the best Christmas story of all is, of course, the one St. Luke tells us at the very beginning of his gospel.  The angels tell the shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  In his homily for Christmas Mass back in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, commenting on that beautiful passage, says, “The Lord is here.  From this moment, God is truly ‘God with us.’  No longer is he the distant God who can in some way be perceived from afar, in creation and in our own consciousness.  He has entered the world.  He is close to us.”

Yes, that first Christmas story, enacted in a stable in faraway Bethlehem in the presence of a dear young mother and her husband, poor shepherds and farm animals, the Savior of the world, was born.  Our God came in smallness, showing himself as a humble infant to help us begin to understand that our efforts for power, possessions and prestige all too often result from human pride.

The story of Christmas, 2011, is unfolding right here among us in western Oregon.  Long ago in Bethlehem many were unaware of the great event taking place right there in their midst.  How many others find themselves in that same unfortunate situation here today?  Angels and shepherds of old proclaimed the good news.  We are those angels and shepherds today.  Yes, let us adore him, and, as we are invited at the end of Mass, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”   Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year one and all!