I have in my files a note passed to me some years ago. It relates to a survey of the words or phrases people most like to hear said to them with sincerity. The most welcomed phrase: "I love you." In second place: "You are forgiven." In third place (are you ready for this?): "Supper is ready." Those three most welcomed phrases are said to us at Christmas.
I love you. The Old Testament is one continuous story of God's love for the people. And yet, the people developed a longing for a Messiah who could lead them to greater faithfulness in their covenant with God who loved them unconditionally.
At Christmas, God's messenger announces to shepherds and to all of us: "I come to proclaim good news to you...This day in David's city a Savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord."
Although the people are not always faithful in their covenant with God and each other, God never abandons them, but fulfills in Jesus the promise of unconditional love. To those shepherds long ago, to the people of every age, and to each of us as we gather for Christmas, God says: "I love you."
You are forgiven. At Christmas, God's messenger announces to shepherds and to all of us: "Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom His favor rests." God's nature is to delight in offering us peace, the grace of forgiveness.
Jesus, born in Bethlehem, will later tell a parable about a son who turns his back on his father, runs off with his share of the family inheritance, squanders it, and then returns home to beg his father to accept him back. The father, however, never turns his back on this son and never takes his eye off the point on the horizon where his son had disappeared. When his son reappears, the father runs to him, throws his arms around him, kisses him, and then throws a welcome-home feast of uncontained joy. God's unconditional love is expressed in God's constant readiness to throw his arms of forgiveness around us, although we do nothing to deserve it. We simply turn toward God and accept it as grace.
For whatever we have done, wherever we have been, whatever we have said, God says to each us what was said to the shepherds long ago: "You are forgiven."
Supper is ready. We join the shepherds in finding Jesus lying in a manger, which is a feeding trough. At Christmas, we go to Jesus to be fed. Jesus, born in Bethlehem, will later feed those who come to Him with His words and with bread that is blessed, broken and given to them. After the Resurrection, Jesus' disciples will encounter Him in the breaking of the bread.
We place our hope and faith in Jesus, the Bread of Life, and in His words of life. We might be discouraged at times, but, Sunday to Sunday, we gather on the holy ground of our churches so Jesus can feed us with the Good News of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We then turn to the altar to encounter Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. What the Gospel proclaims is made real in the sacrament of God's love and forgiveness. Jesus Christ feeds His people: "Supper is ready."
At Christmas, we join the shepherds who go to Mary and report what they have seen and heard. St. Luke tells us that, "Mary treasured these things and reflected on them in her heart." We too take all this into our hearts.
At that first Christmas and again at this Christmas, in the proclamation of God's Word and in the sacrament at our altars, God tells us what we most want to hear: "I love you," "You are forgiven," and even "Supper is ready."
Father David Mercer is a priest of the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., and writes a perspective column for diocesan newspapers.