As we know, Christmas is traditionally the time of gift-giving and gift-receiving. This tradition of giving and receiving comes from the story of the Wise Men from the East who brought gifts to the Christ child. We celebrate this event at the Feast of the Epiphany—Old Christmas Day—which brings an end to the Christmas season. But our gift-giving and receiving also recalls the gift of God himself, in the person of the baby Jesus born of Mary at Bethlehem—the reason millions of Christians worship either in churches or in their homes around the world on Christmas—God gives the gift of his only begotten Son to a suffering and hurting world.
And like any true gift, it is freely given, with no strings attached. God has given Himself to His People whom he has created and we are free to accept this gift or not. We are not forced nor compelled against our will. As we know, humanity has a long history of not accepting God’s gift. This was seen in the Gospel story when there was no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph at Bethlehem. And, unfortunately, we Christians have a long, sad history of forcing the Gospel on others, usually by methods of fear and intimidation. But the gift of God—the Good News of Jesus Christ is to be freely offered and should be freely accepted, with no strings attached.
That is the central message of Christmas—that our God is a God who cares for humanity, respects humanity, and is involved in humanity. As we read in the Gospel of John, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” As we hear in the Gospel of Matthew, “You shall call his name Emmanuel which means God is with us.”
The true meaning of Christmas is that God is now here and dwells among us. You see, Christmas means God is with us. God is not just “up there” somewhere answering our prayers by lifting us out of our lives, but our God comes right into the midst of them. Christmas means God is involved in our world and our lives. God has made his home in you and me. It is about the love God has for His world and us, his people. God reveals His love and mercy in the birth of the baby in the manger—who is Christ the Lord. And he is as real to us today as when he was cradled in the arms of his loving holy Mother. But it is we who are cradled in his loving embrace when we turn our hearts and lives to him. God is with his people. God does not force his way into our lives. God offers himself to us as a free gift.
Sometimes the best gifts we can either give or receive are surprise ones. Have you ever received a gift from someone you never expected? Remember how you felt? If you are like me, you perhaps felt unworthy or even ashamed that someone would give you something you never expected. Perhaps that feeling of unworthiness is a big part of why many turn away from the free gift of God. We feel we are not good enough, or worse, we think if people only knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me at all, especially God.
Well, guess what? God does know the real you and the real me. And guess what? God still comes to us and offers us his gift of love and forgiveness and acceptance and belonging. God already knows everything about us, the good and the bad, and still wants to be part of our lives. Sure, others may reject us or disown us, but not God. God made you to love you. And he loves you on your good days as much as your bad days. And he loves you when you feel it, and he loves you when you don’t feel it. He loves you when you think you deserve it, and he loves you when you think you don’t deserve it.
When I served in the Parish of Cartwright in Labrador, I remember holding the Christmas service with the Sunday School children. I decided to put a gift under the tree in the Church with the gift tag that read “To God from Us”. I asked the children, what do you think God would want for Christmas? One child said, Candy? Another said, “Warm socks!” What could we give God as a gift at Christmas?
When I gathered the children at the chancel steps, I handed the gift to them and asked them to open the box and look inside to see what we had given God for Christmas. As each child opened the box, there were looks of confusion and bewilderment. It wasn’t candy or warm stockings. That’s because, at the bottom of the box, I put a mirror. When they opened it, the first thing they saw was themselves in the reflection. I told them that the greatest gift God gave us was his son, Jesus and that we are gifts for God and it is the best gift we could ever give him.
God is offering us a gift. For some, this might be a familiar message, but for others, this might be the first time they heard about this gift from God. Regardless of where you are or who you are, know that you are loved by God. Know that you are a gift that is deeply cherished by God.
In her poem, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” the author Christina Rossetti describes “love,” as truly shown when Christ came down from heaven at Christmas. This “love” is not only for Christians but a gift for all people on earth. For Rossetti, all are given this gift of divine love regardless of their religion or faith. To quote the first and last stanzas of her poem:
Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
star and angels gave the sign.
Love shall be our token;
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and others,
love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rosetti wrote another poem that has been made popular through its setting to music and known as the Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Again, she reiterates the theme of love coming down as a gift from heaven in the person of Jesus Christ, but it’s the last verse that offers us a response to this gift of love from God, in other words, what could we give God for receiving such a gift of love:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
My friends, God sent his son as the greatest gift of love we could ever receive. And we are called to share this same love to everyone, but especially to the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, those rejected by society, the broken and marginalized. Let God’s love in Christ be the best gift we can give someone this Christmas, for it is in giving that we receive.
A blessed and Holy Christmas to each and every one of you.