Sunday, January 8, 2012

Alpha: A Gift Fit for a King

Did you come to church empty-handed this morning? And I'm not talking about whether you remembered your envelopes or your wallets.

I'm asking what gifts you brought to offer to the Lord. What homage will you pay to Jesus as we celebrate his birth?

Most of us wouldn't dream of arriving at a birthday party without a gift. So how can we celebrate this great mystery without one?

Each of us is invited to join the procession to Bethlehem, foretold by Isaiah's prophecy in our first reading, prefigured in our Psalm, and described in the Matthew's account of the visit of the wise men.

Like excited youngsters attending a birthday party, we need to say "here, this is for you!" and wait eagerly for the reaction.

But what are we to bring? What can we offer the Creator of the world?

It's a fair bet that no-one has brought him gold, or frankincense or myrrh. These aren't what Jesus needs or asks. Today, he doesn't ask for symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh but very practical gifts of time, talent, and treasure.

When we offer the Christ Child our time, our talent, and our treasure, we do exactly what the wise men did: we pay him homage. We allow our joy at his birth to overflow into our lives. We admit to being overwhelmed by the Star of Bethlehem that brings light to the darkest corners of our lives and our world.

I'm not going to talk about the powerful symbolism of the gold, frankincense and myrrh this Sunday; it's enough to say that the Epiphany story would be incomplete without all three. And it's enough to say that Christians don't choose whether to offer time, talent, or treasure: we are called by baptism, and by discipleship, to offer all three as we kneel before our King.

But still you ask: what am I to offer? Is this homily about increasing the collection?

Not at all. Even at Bethlehem, the greatest gift the Magi offered was their time. T.S. Eliot reminds us of that in his poem "The Journey of the Magi," which begins by quoting a seventeenth-century homily: "A cold coming we had of it/ Just the worst time of the year/ For a journey, and such a long journey."

What was true then is true today. The light that has shone in our hearts, the dawn that draws us, the mystery made known to us, and the promise given to us logically and necessarily require a response. And how can we respond without offering time?

So far in this brief homily I have asked eight questions. They may seem rhetorical—they haven't made anyone too uncomfortable. It's time, then, to ask a question that's very practical: are you willing this month to take the time and make the effort to share the true joy of Christmas with someone you know?

Even more specifically: will you offer the Lord the gift he most desires, by asking a friend, a neighbour or a co-worker to come to the Alpha course?

Will you take the time to come with them on Monday nights?
The Alpha course invites people to share "in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" that St. Paul speaks of in our second reading. It makes known the basic truths of the mystery that God has revealed through the coming of Christ.

It's not a catechism course. It's not a refresher course. It's twelve weeks of what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity"—namely, the fundamental truths about the life and death of Jesus and all that they mean for sinful man.

Alpha is fast and funny. The food is good. And the atmosphere is welcoming. The other day someone asked me whether they could ask an atheist to Alpha. I laughed and said "Of course! Alpha is tailor-made for atheists. We'd love to see Dawkins at Alpha; it would have been great to see poor Christopher Hitchens at Alpha."

My family is a gift-giving family. But there's not much spontaneous about our gifts. Before every birthday or Christmas there's a jungle telegraph that communicates a list of suitable gifts; sometimes all I have to do is wrap it. It's that easy: no need to guess.

Today, in our parish, there's no need to guess. If you want a gift idea for the birthday of our Saviour, bring someone to him; go through the list of people who've asked you about your faith, or who have criticized your faith, or who seem to have lost their faith. Ask them to Alpha—more precisely, ask them to come with you to Alpha.

Your gift of time may open eternity to someone; but whatever comes of it, you will have offered a gift fit for a King.

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