When it comes to Christmas (and Christianity in general for that matter), we tend to think the operative word of the season is ‘for.’
Christmas is a time we feel drawn to doing things ‘for’ others.
We search out the right presents ‘for’ our loved ones.
We stress out about cooking up the perfect feast ‘for’ our family.
More so than any other time of year, we think this is the season when we should do something charitable ‘for’ those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
‘For’ is our Christmas word. But that’s a problem.
Because ‘for’ for all its good intentions, can’t repair that broken relationships, ease alienation or keep the poor from remaining strangers.
Our fixation with ‘for’ at Christmastime is problematic because ‘for’ isn’t the way God celebrates Christmas.
Remember, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
And then in John’s gospel, we get a same-but-different summary of what Christmas means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.”
It’s a tiny little word but it gets to the heart of Christmas.
This morning a service team from Aldersgate left for Guatemala.
This week we will be building two projects: a community center and a school kitchen in the village of Chuicutama.
Chuicutama is where our team this summer stayed while building the kitchen in Chikisis. It’s at 11K feet off the Pan-American Highway in the Mayan Highlands. It’s remote, poor and beautiful.
While the tangible bricks and mortar projects we do ‘for’ Chuicutama this week are important. They’re not the most vital part of our week.
We’re here at Christmastime to experience firsthand the difference between ‘for’ and ‘with.’ I believe by being with each other for 8 long days and being with the poor, living right there in their homes with them, we will get close the mystery of Christmas.
And one of the things we’ll discover is how “with” is harder than “for.” Probably for God too.
“For” doesn’t require a conversation, a real relationship, or any change in your own life to incorporate the other.
What makes many gestures of Christmas charity seem hollow is not that they’re not well-intentioned, but that what isolated and impoverished people usually need is not gifts or money but the faithful presence of a people who will be “with” them.
In Guatemala mission, the word we use for that ‘withness’ is accompaniment.
But “with” can be scary because the “with” seems to ask more of us than we can give. We’d all prefer to keep charity on the level of “for,” say the Salvation Army ringer, where it can’t hurt us.
And that’s why it’s gospel, good news, that God didn’t settle on “for.”
At Christmas God said unambiguously, “I am ‘with’.” My name is Emmanuel, God “with” us.
That’s the good news of Christmas.
And how do we celebrate this good news? By doing exactly what we’re doing this week.
By being “with” people in poverty and distress even when there’s only so much we can do “for” them. By being “with” one another as an end in itself. By being “with” God in prayer and worship rather than rushing in our anxiety to do yet more things “for” God or others.