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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: God’s present is His presence

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Children enjoy the lights at the launch od Christmas at the Cathedral. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Children enjoy the lights at the launch od Christmas at the Cathedral. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

This is the edited text of the Ferverino given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the nineteenth annual carols with the Archbishop and the World Youth Day Orchestra at Holy Family Church, Maroubra, 10 December 2023.

The American writer William Sydney Porter under the nom de plume “O. Henry” published a short story for Christmas in 1905. It tells the tale of James and Della, a young married couple in New York, who couldn’t afford Christmas gifts. Della decides she can only obtain something worthwhile for her beloved by selling her most prized possession: her knee-length brown hair, which we are told would outshine the Queen of Sheba’s jewels. A wigmaker gives her $20 for the hair, and she uses the money to buy a platinum fob chain to go with Jim’s gold pocket watch, a family heirloom that would be the envy of Solomon.

Struggling to contain her excitement at giving James the perfect present, but nervous about his reaction to her new bob cut, Della sits by the door with watchchain in hand. When he arrives, James is taken aback by her new look, but she assures him its loss was in a good cause: his Christmas present. Before she has a chance to give it to him, James reaches into his pocket and presents her with a small package. “No haircut could ever make me love you any less,” he says and motions her to unwrap the present. Tears stream down her face as she realises James has bought her a beautiful set of ornamental combs she had been eyeing forever but could never afford. Still crying, Della opens her hand and shows Jim the gold watchchain, “Isn’t it perfect Jim, I hunted all over town to find it… give me your watch, I want to see how they look together.” Sitting down with a smile on his face, Jim suggests they put the gifts away and enjoy their dinner. After all, he had sold his gold pocket watch to buy her haircombs!

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Henry’s short tale is generally considered an example of cosmic irony, a powerful allegory on sacrifice and selflessness. The true essence of giving is not about price tags or opulence, rivalry or envy: no, gifts are meaningful to the extent that they express a deeper truth about the giver and the receiver and the relationship between them. While the gifts that Della and Jim exchanged cannot be used, each knows how far the other went to show their love.

Henry named the story of James and Della The Gift of the Magi. Towards the end of the story, we get a clue as to why. The Magi were, after all, the inventors of Christmas gifts. Philosopher kings, priestly oracles, oriental astrologers—what was wisest and most royal about them was not their education or privilege, but their willingness to be guided to the source of all wisdom and to humble themselves before a helpless babe lying in a manger. After the parents, the angels, and the shepherds, they were the first to worship the Christ-child. And they knew above all that presence is more important than presents. Whilst they famously brought the newborn king gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they more importantly brought themselves.

When Herod demanded of the three kings to know the whereabouts of the infant king of the Jews, they sensed something foul was afoot. The one they were seeking was the opposite of the blood thirsty Herod: the new baby Prince of Peace. Soon after their departure the streets of Bethlehem were awash with the blood of innocents. So, once again, is the Holy Land at this time. We do not forget Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar, and other places where terrible war is afoot. But visceral hatred, and unspeakable brutality are a blasphemy particularly vented upon the land of Christ’s birth. Atrocity breeds righteous anger, righteous anger unrighteous, unrighteous anger reprisal. An endless cycle of retaliation. The kings could see it on Herod’s anxious face, hear it in his smarmy words. Our carol We Three Kings has one king offer gold with which to crown the Christ-child king. The second gives his frankincense to testify that Christ is ”deity nigh”. The third brings myrrh, its bitter perfume breathing of the sacrifice that would be Christ’s life and death. The sacrifice of innocents was in the air then, and is again today. The wise men would have no part in it and went a different way. And they express in the carol their hope for something better. The infant King, God and sacrifice would rise glorious as a promise to all victims.

By parting with what they cherished for the good of one they cherished more, James and Della proved themselves as wise as the Magi. And perhaps there is something here for all of us in the lead up to Christmas. As important as material gifts are, they are no match for the gift of the self and at best only tokens of it. It is far more valuable than anything we could buy. And this is precisely what God gave us two thousand years ago and renews each year at Christmas. His present was His divine presence. No longer hidden behind burning bush or thunder cloud or mountain mystery, but God there for all to see in a baby.

What more could God give us? A share in His very being? He gave us this in the creation of the cosmos and in our own creation. A share in His intelligence and freedom? He made us in His image, sufficiently free and knowing to do noble deeds or ignoble. A chance to know and love Him? The Scriptures and the Incarnation are an endless series of revelations and invitations. Healing for our hurts? His miracles and sacraments are the balms we need. Redemption from all that has gone wrong with us? Calvary was no less. Inspiration and support amidst the highs and lows of life? The Church is for this. An even greater share of His very being? That is the communion we are promised in heaven.

All of this is our Christmas gift. God will renew the gift of His divine being, creativity, revelation, affection, healing, redemption, communion, presence—all wrapped not in Christmas paper but in swaddling clothes. Open wide the cradle of your heart to receive that great gift.

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