This homily was delivered at Mary the Queen Parish for the first of the Christmas Novena Masses on 15 December 2012.

I think it would have been great if for this very first Simbang Gabi, the Gospel talked about Mary and Joseph, or the angels, or the shepherds–or even the drummer boy! But instead of any of the traditional and romantic Christmas characters, who do we get instead in this evening’s gospel reading? John the Baptist!

As you probably know, John the Baptist is not exactly the most romantic of characters. In fact, he’s a pretty stern prophet–in other words, not exactly the kind of guest you would invite to your Christmas party. John the Baptist wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. And as we heard in today’s reading, in order to prepare the way of the Lord, John minced no word and told people not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear.

Now, there must be a reason why the Church has chosen to launch the Novena Masses with John the Baptist, of all the biblical characters. In the Gospel reading, three groups of people interview John the Baptist and they all ask him the same question: “What should we do?” Understandably, John’s answer is different for each group.

To the crowds, he says, “If you have two cloaks, give one away to someone who doesn’t. Do the same if you have extra food.”

His advice to the tax collectors is very specific: “Don’t collect more taxes than you should.”

Finally, to the soldiers, he says, “Don’t extort money; don’t accuse anyone falsely; and be happy with your wages.”

So, to answer the same question, “What should we do?” John the Baptist gives three very different answers to three different groups of people. But the answers aren’t really very different from one another;  in fact, they’re really about one and the same thing. And here’s how I’d put this common message: “Focus on needs, not wants.”

An extra cloak is not necessary, he seems to be telling the crowd. It’s not a need, but a want, so give it away. Extra food is not necessary; it’s not a need, but a want.  The tax collectors are reminded to collect only what they need to collect. Anything over and above the prescribed amount isn’t necessary too; not a need, but a want–and a greedy want at that. The soldiers are told to be content with their wages, which is all they need. Anything more Not necessary, not a need, but a want.

Focus on needs, not wants.

Come to think of it,  the Baptist does give us the perfect Christmas message as we gradually step into this  season. For most of us, especially those who can afford, Christmas is often an embarrassment of riches: We eat too much, we shop and spend too much, and we party too much.  If we ask the John the Baptist what we should do to prepare for the coming of the Lord, we can guess his answer:  “Focus on needs; not wants.”

What do we mean by needs and wants? What’s the difference between the things we need and those that we want? Strictly speaking, needs refer to basic requirements for survival such as food, clothing, and shelter. But they also include things that enhance our quality of life such as education and medicine.The list doesn’t end there, thankfully: Family, love, and friendship–these are important needs too. Without family, without love, and without friendship, there’s no way we can survive.

Wants, on the other hand, are things that are not essential to survival, but which we would like to have if we could. When you think about it, that covers a lot of things–including extra food, extra clothes, everything extra!

Here’s a good check to find out if something is a need or a want.  Go through your Christmas list and ask yourself: “What will happen if I don’t have this?” and “Can I actually live without it?” If nothing will happen if you don’t have it, or if you can live without it, the item must be a want, not a need. I suspect we will all discover that most, if not all the items on our Christmas list would fall under the category of want and not need.

Ok, you might be thinking: Is this priest about to suggest the unthinkable?  Is he actually going to recommend that for this Christmas,  we  only get just enough food for ourselves, or just one set of clothes, and so on and so forth? Why, there’s nothing Christmasy about that!  That sounds more like Lent, doesn’t it?

Friends, worry not. What I’m about to suggest is related to what John the Baptist tells the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers: “Focus on needs, not wants.” But there’s a couple of twists.

First, by all means, let’s be extravagant this Christmas, but let’s be extravagant not on ourselves, but on others–the people we love the most and the people who need it the most. And second, let’s lavish these people not just with what they want, which is what we too often do at Christmas. Rather, let’s lavish them with what they need, with those essential and enduring things like family, love, with friendship.

John the Baptist’s message is really an invitation to learn from the very first Christmas gift-giver, Who is God. God did not scrimp on us; He gave us a most extravagant gift that first Christmas. But it was not so much a gift that we wanted as much as it was a gift that we needed–the gift of His only Son, our Lord Jesus, Who alone is our hope and salvation.

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