Talking about gift giving and Christmas is something I feel called to do as a priest, simply because it gets so frantic this time of year. And especially since we hear about the so-called “war on Christmas” which foces on whether a store has the words “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” displayed. I think the war is really about the excess in our spending which completely misses the mark around Christmas.
Advent 3 — Isaiah 61:1-11
If these words from Isaiah that we heard this morning sound familiar to you, you’re right; they are. These are the verses that Jesus reads when he is in the synagogue back in his hometown for the first time after his ministry begins. This text for the prophet becomes Jesus’ mission statement. It was the very reason he was born so many years ago in Bethlehem.
You would think that in order to honor Jesus’ birth we would focus on these sorts of things. That Christmas would be a day proclaiming good news, or comforting the ones who mourn, or binding up the brokenhearted. Instead, as you well know, Christmas is celebrated in America by a $465 billion shopping extravaganza. We deal with weeks of traffic jams from people heading to the mall. We rack our brains trying to think of the “perfect” gift for Dad (which trends down to a “palatable” gift by the time Advent 4 rolls around since we need to get this gift in the mail). We fret over all this stuff and just hope to make it through Christmas intact.
It’s crazy really. A billion dollar bills laid end to end at the equator would circle Earth 4 times. 465 billion dollar bills would circle it 1,860 times. That’s a lot of money on sweaters or plastic toys or books or iPads or gift cards for PF Chang’s. And we do it to honor Jesus’ birthday.
Do you think we should ask him if this is what he wants?
I saw a video this week put out by the people of the Advent Conspiracy—and I have a book they wrote a few years back as well. They remind us about our excessive holiday spending and the reality that we could solve the world’s water crisis—that is, safe drinking water and clean sanitation for every human being—for $20 billion. For 4% of what we Americans will spend on Christmas this year, we could help every single man, woman and child in the world have clean water.
Someone will say to me, “Yes, that’s nice, but my gifts are important. I need to give Johnny that game for his PS3” or whatever it is that is on your must buy list. And I’m not going to quibble with you about the actual gifts you are giving—or the ones that I am giving for that matter. But I will say this, I think we’d all rather have memories and time with loved ones. What we really want for Christmas is the relational aspect of this season, not a new toy or clothing article. We want connectedness. And I think this is true for our kids as well. They want the time playing with someone else more than just a game they can play on their own.
I agree with Rick McKinley—one of the authors of The Advent Conspiracy—when he writes, “our world is increasingly fractured, yet we often mask the distance this causes with a kind of pseudo-community—we call, we email, we text, we Facebook, we Tweet, and the list goes on. These can be important ways to keep in touch, but they can never replace the flesh-and-blood aspect of a relationship. We need to be with each other.”
That’s why Jesus came. To restore relationships. This list given by Isaiah and mentioned by Jesus in that first sermon highlight why the Messiah came into this world. Jesus was born to bring life and hope to people who are hurting and broken. The Messiah’s work is relational, fleshy, it’s in meeting the longings of people’s souls for connection with others.
Each category of person mentioned by Isaiah—the brokenhearted, the imprisoned, the captives—because of the circumstances of their lives, experienced disconnection from others. What they wanted most was to be reconnected. To not be cut off, pushed aside or forgotten. They longed for community. And that’s exactly what Jesus brought.
The Advent Conspiracy folks spend time talking about the idea of Jesus’ incarnation. God was revealed to us through the coming of Jesus as a human being. God wanted to interact with us, to live among us, to, as the Message Bible puts it, come into our neighborhood. Jesus came to build relationships, and to deepen connections. The Incarnation is “in practical terms, what it means to give ourselves to one another.” Jesus is to be called Emmanuel, God with us. God with us!
Many of the gifts that will be opened on Christmas will be of the non-relational variety, gifts purchased under duress or with little thought about the person; gifts that are, for lack of a better way of putting, less than personal. We’ve all gotten these in years past, and, lest we think we’re superior to others, we’ve also given these types of gifts as well.
So let’s get down to brass tacks. What makes a gift relational? Here are some ideas: Give a gift card for Starbucks to a person who likes coffee, but with the following constraint, they can only use it with you, so that the two of you get to spend some time talking over that cup of joe. Buy a puzzle or game for a young person, promising to spend time doing that activity together. Give the gift of your presence, your company, in creative ways: making time to scrap book with someone or going for a hike when you give those new snow shoes or having someone over for dinner.
The authors of The Advent Conspiracy tell a story that I want to share. “Relational giving means that we pay attention to the other person. We think about who they are and what they care about,” they write. Then they give this example.
“A father and his teenage daughter were enjoying their last Christmas at home before she headed off to college that summer. For him, the days where beginning to blur into weeks and the little girl he was bouncing on his lap just yesterday was going to leave tomorrow.
“What did that father give his daughter for Christmas? Two beautiful blank journals with these instructions: she was to fill one, he’d fill the other. During the next year, which would include her final days of high school, an all-too-brief summer, and her first semester away from home, they both committed to writing: thoughts about leaving home, questions and fears, frustrations with overprotective parenting, what it meant to let go, and how it feels to watch your child become an adult. The next Christmas, they’d exchange their journals…. No gift could have been more relational, more personal, and no other gift would stand a chance of being appreciated so warmly or remembered for so long.”
It makes sense, of course, but it is also costly. We have to invest part of ourselves in these types of gifts, and when we give of ourselves we take a risk. Yet it is so worth the risk. When we give relational gifts, we create memories that last much longer than the quick view and toss of the usual Christmas gift — I can’t help but think of Ralphie and Randy Parker of “A Christmas Story” fame, unwrapping socks with chagrin and simultaneously throwing them over their shoulders.
If we gave more relational gifts and spent less overall, we might also have the ability to give the gift of water to one of the billion of the world’s most needy who drink polluted water each day. 2.2 million people die each year simply because they don’t have access to clean water. The organization Living Water International can provide a person with clean water for an entire year with 98 cents. If you made a contribution to them—perhaps in honor of someone else—you would really be working toward the mission that Jesus came to fulfill.
When we ponder the true meaning of Christmas as shown in the life of Jesus Christ, we cannot help but realize that what mattered most to Jesus was community, connections, relationships. God with us focused on restoration and amendment of life. He came bringing healing and wholeness, and he invites us to do likewise. He encourages us to model our lives, and our Christmas giving, on the way he gave to others, sacrificially, wholeheartedly and without hesitation. May we find it in ourselves this year to follow Christ’s example and give gifts that will last a lifetime and bring hope and peace to our lives and our world. Amen.