Guest columnist: Cherish the mystery of Christmas
By Rev. Gary Heaton
It is the season for giving. Even Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive. But I suspect that God knows that it is infinitely more difficult to receive. I once received a Christmas gift from someone I did not like. It was a really nice gift. And it was the worst thing this person could have done. And she knew it. Because now, even though she knew I did not like her, I would have to give her something just as good as she gave me. Ah, the mysteries of guilt.
I am convinced that the one reason everyone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas is because we like to think of ourselves as basically generous people. Everyone becomes a giver at Christmas, even the stingiest among us. Charles Dickens’ story of the transformation of Scrooge in the classic “A Christmas Carol,” has probably done more to shape our notions of Christmas than the second chapter of the gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of God’s gift to us; Dickens tells us how we can give to others. Because we like to think of ourselves as benevolent people we prefer the story that suggests that even the worst among us is capable of becoming generous. And truth be told, we are better givers then getters, not necessarily because we are by nature generous, but because we are proud, arrogant people.
The wealthy among us, and by world standards that includes anyone who has adequate housing and three meals a day, think of ourselves as givers – powerful, self-sufficient, capable people. For many of us generosity consists of being motivated to share a little of our power, competence and abundance for the benefit of the less fortunate among us. The Christmas story according to Luke is not about how blessed it is for us to be givers, but how essential it is for us to be receivers. If you have ever received a gift from total stranger with no expectation of payback, you will know what I mean. The Christmas story is not about our munificence but our nature as receivers.
In the nativity stories of Jesus’ birth, our power, our capabilities, our philanthropy, have very little to do with God’s decision to send his son to live among us. We didn’t initiate it, we don’t have to approve it, agree to it or even understand it. All we have to do is receive it. A gift from a God we scarcely know.
Recognizing that our lives are not possessions but gifts from a loving creator is difficult because we don’t want to admit that we are dependent, needy and vulnerable. It’s uncomfortable being on the receiving end of God’s love, because it means conceding that what we need most comes not as a result of programs, projects or even our generosity, but as a result of God’s gracious giving. John Wesley once wrote “nothing is more repugnant to capable modern people than grace.” But that’s the way God loves us. By giving us a gift we sometimes refuse to admit we need, in order to transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be.
With our advanced degrees, armies, government programs, material comforts and self-fulfillment techniques, we have convinced ourselves that religion is about giving out of our abundance to validate the perception that we are as powerful and self-sufficient as we claim to be. God dispelled that notion on that first Christmas. “And when the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death” Philippians 2:7-8 Msg – In the process God left us exposed for who we really are – empty-handed recipients of a benevolent God who gives us a gift that we cannot possibly repay. It’s called grace. May you experience the mystery of it this Christmas.