We’re here to celebrate Christmas, the time when we visit family and friends, celebrate love and life together, sometimes sing songs, and usually open gifts that are often given with great love, and that’s all good. So today I want to talk about receiving and giving gifts.
One thing that always surprises me is all the different ways that people open their gifts! For example, as a girl, my cousin Barbara used to be very careful with wrapping paper; opening gifts slowly, then folding and putting away the paper for possible re-use, even saving the box it came in for future use. I, on the other hand, quickly ripped off the paper, throwing it away to some empty corner of the room, and following that with the box the gift came in. The only exception to this rule happened when I was around fourteen and I bought a small gift for my older brother Tom, which I wrapped and put in a small box, wrapped inside another larger box, inside one more carefully wrapped very large box. I put this under the tree and successfully kept from laughing out loud during the whole, quite extended, time my brother took to unwrap the three packages and got to the gift which in the end, he actually liked a lot.
Years later, on her second or third Christmas celebration, I gave his first daughter, my oldest niece Lisa, a very large reproduction of a nineteenth century, brightly coloured English, High Victorian, stuffed rabbit. I thought it was great and she didn’t like it at all, and quickly and firmly pushed it away. But she dearly loved playing in the big cardboard box that it came in.
So how do we deal with the biggest gift we get, the Christmas gift that God gives us? How do we make sure that we unwrap it carefully, not getting too caught up with the wrappings or throwing it away unthinkingly, how do we make sure we don’t just end up playing in the box. Ff this gift is given in great love, how do we receive it properly?
I think that some hints of ways to open it are contained in the summary of the Law where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” [Matthew 22:37-40]
For living those lines out has to do with sharing the life that God gives us as mindfully, heartily and prayerfully as we can, and that takes us where we need to go. For if God is the maker of the meaning, the melody and the wonder of it all, if all this is a gift, then loving and living our whole life is the best way of opening the gift; of making our whole lives a unique opening, a personal and present introduction to love. Because that is what the gift is.
I’ve always liked the advice of the poet, Robert Frost, who said to “take the light things seriously and the serious things lightly.” So we can look at something that might seem relatively unimportant, like how we handle our introductions to people, and let that be a template to how we come to live in the Kingdom of God in light of this Christmas gift. Here are three ways we can understand this.
When I was a kid I remember my mother prompting me to use peoples name when i was introduced.This showed good manners and was a way to remember their names, to be polite, to start to honour, appreciate, be mindful. Now I tend to forget names. But I do remember stories people tell, their sadness, delight, travels, the troubles they’ve seen and shared, and maybe that’s going even farther in the mindful direction too.
There are two quotes that have to do with the heart. Plato wrote, remember that "everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And to remember this, is to appreciate the struggles we all share, is to start to heartily honour what it means to be human, for as one great Hollywood movie put it, "You'll never be a first-class human being… until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty.” and that’s adding some strength from the heart to what it means to be together in the human journey.
But there can be more than that: I remember an organist and choir director, almost 50 years ago, telling me that she always prayed for people when she first met them. That’s not only a sharing of mind and heart but adds hope and strength, compassion and care; that gets to be soul-sized! — and when we do that, in an initial introduction or afterwards, in any interaction; we’re opening, enacting, introducing Godly loving actions, and truly loving our neighbour, God’s neighbour, with all our mind and heart and soul.
And I am convinced that can finally take us almost all the way home, for when we are free to love our neighbours in these three dimensions, head, heart, soul; then we can finally figure out how we are to truly love ourselves, for, by the grace of God, there is only one love. But that isn't all.
Now, you know those tv ads where they're selling amazing appliances, super potato peelers and the like, and they always say, "And there's still more than this!"?
Well, there's more here too, at least three more dimensions to the big Christmas present. For, first, if Jesus is a a kind of a moving picture of how God loves and deals with living life and death and loving neighbour and stranger with all heart, mind, soul, then the more we, read, research, reflect, listen to and live out his life (as presented in the Four Gospels, the New Testament, and reflected through the thoughts, prayers, traditions of the gathered worshipping community of the church), the more we can clearly see the scope, the breadth of His life, full of God’s love, forgiveness, patience and the full freedom to which we are called.
But there’s even more than that. For when, in the ancient rite of Holy Communion -- this Eucharist, we come to incorporate his passion and purpose, his life and death into ours; and just as intimately as we are nurtured by him, we aim to embody his freely given life, and to enflesh the holy freedom of love he offers us.
This dimension is less of a thought process and more of a dance: we take up this gift to give it away and we take in this life to live it out. It isnt easy to get our minds around this, for we live in such a “heads up” culture, but to share Jesus’ life in this way can lead us to a complete and holy participation, sharing, head, heart and soul, in God’s own self-giving love.
And there’s even more than that! Finally,as St Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he (she) is a new creation.” And that adds a whole other side to what we do here. We first work to incorporate Christ’s life and love into our lives, and to live that love out in our lives; but then Jesus, God in Christ, invites us live in that love, abide in the heart of it, spend our days within the universal heart of love; by becoming a new being in the living grace of God.
And that is what this two thousand year old story, God’s gift of Christmas, is all about. And then finally the question is: how can we possibly begin to respond? Well, Christina Rosetti gave a simple answer to this in 1872 when she wrote...
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.
May this Christmas season overflow with gift for you. Amen.