Christmas Vigil Mass
Isaiah 62:1-5; Acts 13: 16-17,22-25; Gospel of Matthew 1:18-25
Christmas - “Spirit of Giving . . . What?  How? ” Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of the Good Shepherd - Singapore, on 24 December 2017

Christmas is often described as a season of “giving.”  However, if we reflect on the meaning of “giving” we will realise that there are many levels of meaning.  Orchard Road is yearly decorated and decked with glittering colours in all department stores; Christmas trees have decoration that costs tens of thousands of dollars and more.  All of these are to entice the public to buy and give more gifts during Christmas.  I have myself not walked on Orchard Road to admire the lights and decoration, because while they may be attractive, I find them too commercialised.  But, for those of you who have walked the nights in Orchard Road, it is good to ask yourselves, “Was I inspired to buy gifts because of the True meaning of Christmas?”  “Did any of the decorations inspire me about Jesus, the Saviour who is to be born?”  Or is the “giving” on a superficial level of the exchange of presents that has no deeper meaning?

The spirit of “giving” in the deeper and truer sense of Christmas has to be more related to a giving of ourselves than the giving of gifts and presents.  And such giving becomes meaningful only if they symbolise the deeper and more wholesome giving of ourselves.  An Australian couple, Avis and Jerome, friends of mine who recently celebrated their 20th Wedding anniversary Mass shared with me that their engagement rings cost $12 ring.  No diamond. No emerald. Plain, simple, cheap silver ring.  Jerome says, “This is because Avis and I did not think it was the ring that mattered.  What matters is the commitment and the great journey ahead.  We’ve seen many couples who bought diamond rings for their engagement, but ended up separating or divorcing within a few years.  For both us, even as our ring is $12, 20 years later, we are still standing together. This, for me, is a great story of love.” 

As such, to try to capture the True meaning of Christmas, our Cathedral team have deliberately chosen only to put up religious symbols of 44 angels to welcome you with piped-in Christmas carols, we have the 24 feet Nativity Bethlehem Village, the Christmas Night Market, Christmas concerts by our Cathedral choirs, and nightly carollers from all over the archdiocese, Lion City Brass Band, Healing Service, Gospel Guided Contemplation on the Birth of Jesus and the like.  

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the “giving” of gifts at Christmas has to be a symbol of the deeper and more authentic giving of ourselves.  The giving of gifts has to be beyond the material giving.  The True meaning and the essence of “giving” at Christmas is indeed, the “giving” and bringing of Christ who is born to us as our Saviour and Lord to others.  

One of our Cathedral community members Michelle; not her real name, went to Nepal last week with her two teenage children David and Diane; also not their real names, to help the poor and the needy, with a group of 30 other volunteers.  Michelle shared, “We went to Hetauda, Nepal for four days.  Getting there was an adventure!  Our domestic flight from Kathmandu was delayed by 3 hours then finally cancelled due to fog.  We all then had to go to Hetauda by a bus and a 4Wheel drive to make the journey.  

The 4WD took the mountain route which stretched for 80 km; 14 of which was off road driving through the mountains - many times I thought I wouldn’t make it!  The roads were narrow, bumpy, winding and had no barriers.  One slip of the steering wheel and we would all have gone over the cliff!

As for the volunteers who took the bus, the journey took 13 hours as it was a 200 km ride around the mountains as the bus too large to take mountain route.  My son, David, kept throwing up and carried his sick bag for 9 hours!   And when they finally arrived at 4.30am and we started work at 8am.  Every day we worked from 8am to 8pm. 

As volunteers, we helped to change the patients into their surgical gowns, pre op dilation drops, eye lash cutting, accompanying the patients to and from the Operations theatre, post op drops and the like.  

Michelle shared further, “For me it was the most meaningful experience we have ever had.  The accommodation was very basic (something like a minus 4 star hotel), the food bland and very basic; the transport very challenging (due to earthquake in 2015), and all the roads are unpaved and dirt roads.  Surprisingly, all of these were irrelevant when we saw the patients: their trials, their poverty and the like.  More so when we were able to share the joy with them when the eye shield was removed the next day and the patient could see again.  Seeing and sharing the joy with these poor people is indescribable. The patient could touch our nose, recognise their loved ones, tell us the colour of the building.  That to us was truly amazing! 

David, Michelle’s son shared with me, “When I arrived, I felt pity for them.  However, soon after, this pity developed into a great respect for them. This is because even as these people are so poor they could still smile, joke and had a very positive outlook on life; and always grateful for everything in their lives.  My mom advised my sister and I that we are not working in a factory and that we should relate and treat these poor people with respect.  So after assisting them, I would shake their hands and give them a hug, even though they are dressed very poorly and probably did not shower for days. . .  Diane, Michelle’s teenage daughter added that now she appreciates, our clean air in Singapore more, and is more grateful for all the things that her parents are providing her and the family.

The overall costs of treating each patient is SGD150.  However, this would costs some SDG8,000 per eye in a private hospital in Singapore.  1,099 people registered for the eye surgery.  They had been pre-screened from villages surrounding the Hetauda Community Eye Hospital.   1,033 surgeries were performed by 6 surgeons in 3 days.   Due to poor education and lack of awareness, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness; which can be avoided.  However, as they are poor and uneducated, if there are no help, they accept their condition as part of life; many of them have been accepting their blindness for the past 10-20 years.  So, for them, the surgery that restores their sight is a miracle.  The lead surgeon and man behind restoring sight to more than 100,000 people in third world countries is Dr Sanduk Ruit.  He is a Nepalese ophthalmologist.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Spirit of Christmas giving, is the spirit of the “giving of ourselves” authentically, selflessly and in Christ-like ways as Jesus gave Himself fully and totally to us; for our sake and Salvation.  Michelle and her children and the volunteers not only made much sacrifices for the sake of the poor and needy who were going blind in Nepal, in fact they even risked their lives while travelling to the village in very harsh and dangerous situations where their buses and vehicle could have skidded and plunged into the deep ravines of the mountainsides.

However, we see that all their sacrifices, strenuous and trying journeys and dangers dissipated and were transformed into grace-filled blessings that God bestowed on them.  The blessings of being able to share the great joy of the poor and needy when their sight were restored.  To have such Christ-like experiences is to experience the true meaning of the Christmas giving of today’s Gospel; the total and selfless giving that both Mary and Joseph too experienced deeply and profoundly.  Mary risking herself being stoned to death when she courageously trusted God and responded “Yes” to accepting God’s Will.  Joseph on the other hand too willingly and promptly accepted God’s Will that was communicate to him in a dream, to take Mary as his wife, and the Child who will be called Jesus; Emmanuel – “God-is-with-us.”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, as I conclude, let us remember that Michelle, her children, some 30 volunteers and 6 surgeons brought sight to the 1,033 poor and needy in Hetauda community of Nepal; and these are people whom they never met or knew.  They were moved to serve the dire and desperate needs of humanity through their very selfless giving of themselves; more so for Michelle and her children, when they felt that in all of the giving of themselves, they were indeed truly sharing and bringing Jesus to these poor and needy, through their compassionate love for them. 

And so, as it is with the witnesses of the Christmas message of “selfless giving of Michelle, David, Diane, and Jerome and Avis, who symbolise the “total and selfless commitment of Mary and Joseph . . .” we too are each called to be and become more like Jesus who gave Himself TOTALLY and UNCONDITIONALLY IN HIS LOVE FOR US . . . through being born at Bethlehem . . . all for our sake and Salvation . . . and today wants to be born in the manger of our hearts

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.

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