One of the fascinating things about the Christmas period is the approach people take to gift giving. I’m sure many of us can think back to times when gifts at Christmas were symbolic, maybe home-crafted, maybe something small or something that would not have been gained otherwise. I’m sure many of us recall Christmas giving that brought us our first bicycle, or roller-skates or skateboard – always at a time of year when trying them out outside was treacherous. One year as an undergraduate at Durham my Nan was so concerned about the cold winter that I was experiencing as a Southerner that she generously bought me a super warm coat. I looked like a Michelin man – but I kept warm!
But today the gift giving experience seems so much different. The introduction of ‘Black Friday’ sales in the UK to complement those after American Thanksgiving shows just how commercial the season has become. Things are available all year round, and there’s less of a need to wait for the gifts of Christmas to get something we need. The lists of Christmas requests, and the heaving piles of presents under the Christmas Tree shows how much modern society has shifted towards the giving of gifts in ever increasing quantities. Nothing, it seems, says Christmas quite like how many things you get to unwrap on Christmas morning.
As Christians, I think this gives us an uneasy tension. The Christmas story is about the gift of God’s self to humanity, brought in the shape of a babe amongst the hay. We will hear or sing ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!’ a number of times over the Christmas period. We are reminded through the story of Jesus’s birth and through the songs that we sing that God’s gift to us came in the form of a child, who became a man, and who leads us in our outlook on the world.
That is a gift that we, as a Church community, are called to share. We have been given the gift of Jesus, told to us in the Bible, as our guide for our living and as a model for how we can transform the world around. We’re invited to share that with the world – to go and make disciples and to tell the good news – through stepping out into the community, through meeting with people we know and people we are yet to know and to talk about the gift that lay among the hay that first Christmas. We’re called to give that gift to the world, as we have been gifted it by God’s generous giving.
At Christmas time, it is very easy to get into the mind-set of thinking about what it is that we want on our list and what things we need in our life – what things we expect of those around us, and how we want the gift to look for us. But the Church and its ministry are not just about giving us what we want. Instead, they are a gift to the world, a response of God’s unending, extravagant, exuberant love. The Church and its ministry are the hands and feet of Jesus – each one of us being the ways that the gift is given not just to those we know but to the world Christ came to transform. When we meet in the name of Jesus, we find for ourselves the gift of ‘God with us’ – Emmanuel – but also think about what it means to be the people who can give God’s love to the world.
When we think about the gift giving that we can offer this Christmas, we need to remind ourselves of the gift that we have been given from God – the babe who preached and taught and died and was raised – and the treasure we hold. The ministry of the Church is not only to share with the family, but to give generously as God has given generously. When we can return to giving freely of the symbols and tokens of our faith – love, compassion, grace, care and hope – and not expecting it all to ourselves, then we can see the transformation that God’s gift can have in the Church and the world.
May the gift of Christ fill your hearts and lives this Christmas.