Christmas is the time of year when we think about giving and receiving. For many, the giving part comes rather easily. Indeed, we are reminded how blessed it is to give than receive. But this morning, I want to share how it’s sometimes difficult to be on the receiving end.
One summer when I was a young lad, I attended a day camp, which included horseback riding among its assorted activities. Learning to ride horses for the very first time was very exciting, but it was diminished as I discovered how unkind the instructors (college students from the local college) were to me. I never understood why.
My way of dealing with it was to keep to myself and suffer through the perceived rejection.
One day, I accidently slammed my finger in the door of a truck used to haul us around. It hurt terribly, but I resisted the notion to report it to somebody. My thought was: “Who would care that I smashed my finger?” It was unusually hard for me to ask for help in this particular instance.
Eventually, the pain became so intense I broke down and asked for help. And when I did, I discovered the most remarkable thing: The people I thought didn’t care about me were eager to help me with my dilemma. Their compassion was amazing. Their love for me was evidenced in their care and concern for my injury.
The thing is though, I had to be ready to accept the gift of their love and their help. I had to be humble enough to accept it when it was given.
The Christmas story is like that. God sent the greatest gift that has ever been given. There in the manger lying as a helpless infant was God incarnate, the gift of salvation for a people who had waited so long. God didn’t have to do it, but chose to help a people who craved for a Savior whom the prophets said would once day come.
What is odd though is not everybody accepted the gift. God held out his greatest gift of love, and some people turned their backs.
Herod the king couldn’t accept the gift. In fact, he was distressed and upset that it was even offered. When the Magi came from the East to his court in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” he was deeply troubled. Herod knew that if he were to accept the gift, he would have to give up his power. He would have to recognize that there is one greater than he, an authority higher than his own to which he must answer. He would have to admit his limits and his need before he could accept the gift.
And the nameless, faceless innkeeper couldn’t accept the gift either. He was just too busy. From all over the countryside, swarms of people had traveled to Bethlehem to be registered. And so the innkeeper had the demanding, high-stress job of providing accommodations for as many of them as possible. It was a real challenge keeping them happy, keeping them all fed and comfortable. And just when he had reached his limit, a poor carpenter and his pregnant teenage wife appeared on his doorstep looking for a place to spend the night. It was just a little too much for him.
And yet there were others who did receive the gift, shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. It wasn’t a glamorous job by any measure. Whether the cold and filth they had to deal with was worse than the sheer boredom of dealing day in and day out with dumb animals, they didn’t know. But they certainly knew they were considered outcasts by the other villagers, for they were Jews who did not, and often—because of the nature of their job—could not keep the law. We have a term for them in today’s vernacular: “low lifes.”
But to them, the angel of the Lord appeared and announced the good news that God had a wonderful gift—the Savior, the long-awaited Messiah, the one promised by the prophets. He had finally been born. What was running through their mind was, “What have we got to lose?” Their lives were humble, insignificant and certainly unimportant in most people’s mind. God’s gift came to them to restore some dignity.
And far away, in a country in the East, three astrologers looking at the heavens saw an unusual sign. It was a star, not like any star they had ever seen before. And they took it to mean that the God of Israel had kept his word to his people and given a wonderful gift. They wanted to accept that gift even though they knew it would mean making tremendous sacrifices; leaving their home and their family and then traveling across a treacherous desert.
Even Mary accepted the gift. Alone in her room in Nazareth, the angel came to her and announced that she had been chosen—among all the women of the world—to bear God’s son, to give birth to the promised one. Mary accepted the honor and privilege of being mother of Jesus. But there were serious consequences to her reputation: pregnant and not married.
It’s not so different this Christmas, 2,000 years later. Not everyone is ready to receive the gift. Many are still distressed and troubled at the offer of God’s gift. So many still find it difficult to recognize that there is One who is greater than we are, One to whom we will have to give up our pride, and surrender our place, and give over our loyalties. When God offers us the gift of his son, he asks us to offer him our pride, our power, and our desire to negotiate with him from a position of strength. He asks us to put aside everything else: our worries, our anxieties, even our busyness.
Mary knew, perhaps more than anyone could appreciate, the strangeness and the struggles involved in accepting this gift. It is all part of the Christian walk. It cost her reputation. It cost her commitment. It cost her son. And yet she accepted the wonderful gift; she “pondered all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19) because she knew that the gift of God’s son was the greatest gift of all.
At Christmas, we think about gifts. We think about giving and receiving. But the greatest gift of all is not one that can be found under the tree. It’s not wrapped in pretty paper. It offers us forgiveness and new life, a reason for living today, and hope for tomorrow.
That greatest gift is found when we give to God the gift of ourselves.
The Rev. Craig M. Kallio is rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Ridge.