Every year, it seems as though there’s some aspect of the Christmas story through which God is particularly speaking to me.
Some years it’s been Mary and her faith-obedience to the word of God brought by the angel. Others it’s been Joseph and the idea of being a father to the Son of God. Some years it’s been the angelic “fear not” spoken to terrified shepherds. Some years the wonder of the Incarnation and pondering the imponderable mystery of God as a single cell in a womb.
Last year, it was the census. I seemed to be so busy last year that I never had much space to just sit down and quietly reflect on the events of the True Story of Christmas, and when I finally did (almost Christmas Eve), what God chose to focus me on was the timing of it all: census time, with everyone bustling around and moving from place to place, the threat of new burdens of taxation from an oppressive pagan government hanging over everyone’s heads. And into all the bustle and noise and stress comes a newborn baby Who is God’s answer to it all.
This year, the focus seems to be on the various gifts and the season of giving.
In some ways there’s a sort of inevitability about it. I’ve posted about generosity and giving quite a lot over the almost three quarters of a year I’ve been at this: here under the imprint of Calvary and Easter, here as part of my Chivalric Virtues series, and here as part of an attempt to rescue the word “liberal” from only denoting a political stance. And even that is only the times I’ve focused in on it; I know I’ve mentioned the subject in passing on several other occasions, too.
Christmas is, of course, well-known as a season of giving. There are the presents we give each other. There are the Salvation Army’s bell-ringers and the other various charities that we like to donate to at this time of year. There’s the story of Saint Nicholas, both in its original version and in the metamorphosed popular version as Santa, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Grandfather Frost or whatever you want to call him. There are the original symbolic (and costly) gifts of the Magi to the Christ-child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And there’s the ultimate Gift of God to fallen mankind: Jesus the Messiah.
Some of these are directly related to the True Story of Christmas. Others relate only more distantly, by association or analogy. But all of them combine around the celebration of the birth of the Saviour, and together they make Christmas the season of giving that it has become.
An alien from the planet Pluto arriving on Earth at Christmas time today might suppose that Christmas was created as a conspiracy among shopkeepers to sell more stuff. Certainly Santa and his elves seem in many ways to tie into this mammon-focused perspective, and it can easily become all about stuff and getting.
But even Hollywood pits Father Christmas against the corporate buying and selling culture of Get, and points dimly at something higher than the stress of shopping and the corporate bottom line.
Father Christmas, of course, has become so much a feature of our celebrations as to practically eclipse the True Story, but even he has Christian origins. Though he took on the visual aspect of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse personifications of winter, with beard and sleigh and reindeer and all, he started out as a Christian saint and bishop. His red robes were once those of a bishop of the church (Roman Catholic cardinals today still wear red), of Myra in present-day Turkey (there’s another modern-day Christmas word), which was then part of the Greek-speaking Christian world. He is remembered chiefly for his generosity, and had a particular eye to the welfare of the poor in his episcopal see. Giving gifts in secret, he is reputed to have left gifts of money in the shoes of poor young women, enabling them to have the dowry money they needed to marry according to the custom of the day. The reindeer and the sleigh are just camouflage, which itself seems appropriate for the original “secret Santa”, and the “Ho Ho Ho” seems very apt as we are told that “God loves a cheerful giver”. What better memorial for one of history’s chief proponents of generosity than laughter and jollity?
The early church began to give gifts to one another at Epiphany, the feast commemorating the journey of the Magi, held on the 6th of January. Later, in some cultures, the gift-giving moved to the feast of St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, and later still got merged into the more important holiday, or “holy day”, of Christmas.
The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given to Jesus because it would be unthinkable to travel for miles and miles to visit and worship a King of the Jews Whose birth had been announced by the stars themselves without bringing gifts. Really – here is someone so important that the heavens themselves turn out in bright array for Him, and you’re going to turn up uninvited with no gift? I don’t think so.
Symbolically speaking, gold was the most noble metal, symbolising kingship, frankincense was the basis of the sacred incense burned in the Temple and denoted priesthood and prayer, and myrrh was a costly perfume most often used as part of the embalming process to help alleviate the scent of dead person. In the words of the Christmas hymn: “Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and Sacrifice”.
But the gifts had practical value as well. Despite the jokey cards that suggest that something more “practical” like a baby bed or bottle, would be in order, unbeknownst to Joseph and Mary their ability to provide for their young son was about to be seriously compromised.
The necessity to flee to Egypt and become refugees meant that Joseph probably had to leave his carpenter’s shop and all his tools firmly behind. No time to go back and get anything; the life of the Son of Man is at stake here.
The gifts would have financed Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ flight into Egypt, bought the silence of anyone who might be tempted to inform Herod, and probably have helped establish Joseph down there.
I may look more at the Magi and their gifts in a successive post, but right now I want to turn my attention to the ultimate Christmas Gift: the gift of God to humanity.
Back at Easter I mentioned how generosity was one of the marks of good Mediæval kingship. Magnanimity was expected, and the size and value of a king’s gift-giving was a direct measure of the power and majesty of their throne. I mentioned that God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign, how it doesn’t matter that Calvary is something we cannot afford, because it is a gift in keeping with the scale of God’s majesty.
Now I want to apply that to Christmas.
God, the Lord of the Universe, Most High and Almighty Ruler of all, determines to give a gift to us. To you. To me. A gift in keeping with the scale of His Majesty requires a gift of infinite worth. And so the Most High God gives to us the costliest treasure He has:
The gift of Himself.
He comes down, born as a baby, incarnated into flesh, living as one of us, destined to die to pay the debt our sinful choices had made, the debt we could not pay.
This is the centre of Christmas. This is the Gift at the heart of it all, to which even Father Christmas points dimly. It’s a season of giving, because He first gave to us.