God's Gift this Christmas

by John McLean

Everyone likes to receive a gift. There’s the anticipation, curiosity, excitement, and thrill of discovery. Sometimes there’s even urgency about opening the gift and seeing what it is. Then there’s the special joy and delight that someone has thought of you – enough to give you something, especially for you. Gift-giving, joy, and celebration go together.

Well, maybe not for everyone. (If it’s socks – again – the joy may muted!) And, if you’ve ever seen the comedy The Big Bang Theory, you will know it is certainly not an occasion for celebration for super-smart physicist Dr Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon may be able to grasp quantum mechanics, but he has trouble getting his head around the basics of human social interaction, as hard as he might try.

And receiving a gift is quite terrifying to him. “You haven’t given me a gift – you’ve given me an obligation” he wails to his neighbour Penny when she tells him she has a Christmas gift for him.

Sheldon can only see the gift-giving exchange in terms of a transaction that requires exactly equal reciprocation. So now he stresses himself with a hyper-vigilant response: how much, exactly, will Penny’s gift cost? How can he get her a gift to the exact same dollar amount? To cover the possibilities, the only solution he can see is to buy a whole bunch of gifts so he can select the one that is the same coast as the one he receives on Christmas Day. Gift-giving in particular, and Christmas in general, becomes a time of enormous anxiety, fear and guilt. How will he be sure he has fulfilled his obligation?

While for most people exchanging gifts is a natural and enjoyable part of Christmas, there is of course a deep irony in addition to the humour here.

Christmas celebrates the greatest gift ever given to humanity, the gift to us of the Son of God. Jesus comes from the inner life of God, God not only revealing himself, but giving himself to us. He comes to us as a baby, in the humblest of circumstances, identifying with our struggles, hardships, disappointments – with all that it means to be human. He comes to give his life for humanity.

Jesus is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He is grace personified. And “grace” has the same origins as “gift”. He is God’s “indescribable gift” to us (2 Corinthians 9:15), for whom we can only give thanks and rejoice.

He comes to us, becoming human, one of us, so he can share his life with us – to include us in the joy of the Trinitarian communion of Father, Son and Spirit. There is nothing we can do for our salvation. All we can do is accept it with open hands, and joyfully receive it with gratitude.

Sometimes this sounds too good to be true. That little voice in the back of our heads, from our upbringing, school, work, and yes, church experience, can tell us it can’t be so. It’s not a transaction we are familiar with – it’s not reciprocal, fair. Like Sheldon, we can, instead of responding with joy and gratitude, become stressed, hyper-vigilant, determined we must do more to balance the ledger, to even the score. Driven more by guilt, fear and anxiety than by faith, hope and love, we can set out to do more, work harder, to earn such a gift – to try rather than trust, to deserve rather than to gratefully receive.

Yet this gracious self-giving of God is the heart of the gospel, and why it’s good news.

That’s why this has been called the “wonderful exchange” – Jesus became who we are so that we can become as he is. That we can share his relationship with the Father. “The prime purpose of the incarnation [the coming of Jesus as a human], in the love of God, is to lift us up into the life of communion, of participation in the very triune life of God”, writes James B. Torrance.

It’s not a transaction, in which we can balance the books. The gift, the grace of God is so vast we can only receive it in faith and gratitude.

Our giving then is not trying to give back to God. It is participating in the nature of God, who shows himself in Jesus to be loving, gracious and giving. It is participating in the love between Father, Son and Spirit. Christmas is a time for gift-giving, joy and celebration. Because we celebrate the greatest gift of all – God’s gracious gift to us of himself.