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I wonder if Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar knew what they were getting us into 2,000 years ago.
Those are the traditional names of the three wise men who decided it would be impolite to show up at the first Christmas party without bringing a gift (OK, lots of holes in that line, but just go with me).
When we say Christmas, we cannot help but have at least in the top 10 images that cross our minds those beautifully wrapped gifts with the marvelous bows on top. The Christmas presents! We don’t have to know what’s inside (in fact, most times the surprise is half the fun); they just have to be there to signify Christmas.
All you have to do is look to the literary master of Christmas, Charles Dickens, to see this premise at work. It wasn’t enough to have a Ghost of Christmas Past and a Ghost of Christmas Future, arguably the only really relevant ghosts in the action, but he has to add the Ghost of Christmas Present. (I know, long way to go, and what’s with all the parenthetical comments?)
Maybe we get hardwired as children that the one time we have a shot at getting something big we really want is at Christmas. Santa will make it happen that one night of the year, and all our emotions of anticipation get caught up in gifts. And we are told that the wise men traveled from afar with frankincense, gold and myrrh not to buy their way into the graces of the newborn king (how non-Lutheran would that be?) but to show their admiration, love and devotion.
So the true meaning of gifts at Christmas really shouldn’t be about the ones we get. It should be about the ones we give. (Light bulb moment with loud crescendos of brass instruments in background). The content of the box is inconsequential when compared to the intentions of the giver!
Now, to be honest, I can’t say this is an original thought to any degree. In fact, this realization is at least one of the points of many of those Christmas classics we love to watch on TV this time of year. Indeed, it is at the heart of my “misperceptions about gifts” premise for our Christmas Family Movie Event (today, from 4-7 p.m. at Ascension Lutheran Church).
Both of the stories I’m using, The Grinch and Charlie Brown, as well as most of those Christmas classics, have a slightly different twist on the same theme.
At some point, there is a realization that it is not the frankincense, gold or myrrh or their modern equivalents that make a difference, but rather the relationships between people.
How many of those modern-day parables of Christmas love have the bad guy trying to give the girl in the middle a very expensive gift, while her true love can only offer a heartfelt trinket? And yet, we know who’s going to win her hand — because it’s the person, not the present.
Now, I’ve received gifts from people that have blown me away because of what they have meant. I have given gifts that were intended to do the same. Think of all those crafts made by tiny hands decades ago that still have a place of honor well above Hallmark’s greatest ornament creations on the Christmas tree. It is the time, the thought, not even the execution, but rather the effort that makes the gift into something more than a thing. It becomes the person himself by the expression.
God’s gifts to us do the same. Someone is able to sing. It is a gift from God. In fact, in those swelling notes, we feel God. Someone is able to commiserate and show compassion. It is a gift from God. In the tender moments of conversation, we feel God. In all the many examples of these kinds of gifts from God, the realization is the same.
The gifts are not presents. They are presence.
In preparing for our Christmas Family Movie Event (in full disclosure I should add that world-famous artist Louis Small Jr. will also be part of the event — teaching everyone how to draw characters from each show and make their own Christmas cards!)
I’ve seen the message of anti-consumerism played out again and again, in images from a brightly lit doghouse to a Red Ryder rifle. It is like we have to remind ourselves that the gift shouldn’t be just a social convention to accompany us to a party (How did we move from gold, frankincense and myrrh to fruitcake and eggnog?) but should be from the heart.
The gift we give should have meaning not for us as givers, but for the people receiving. It should be what they want. It should be what they need. It should be what lets them know we are there for them because we understand, we care, and we love them.
I think that’s what God was all about 2,000 years ago. After all, what the wise men brought was the second gift. The first was offered by God to a world in want and in need. For, you see, it wasn’t all those glorious presents that God brought on that Christmas long ago. It wasn’t a thing at all. It was a person. God called him Immanuel. That word is translated “God is with us,” because that person was God himself in Jesus.
What is Christmas all about and what does it mean? Perhaps we had it right all along but just had a spelling error. Because, you see, just as we ourselves want to be with the family on Christmas Day to tell each other, “I love you,” God wants to do the same.
Immanuel. Maybe it really is all about what everyone says after all. Maybe it’s all about Christmas presence — yours, mine, and especially that baby in the manger!