No matter that Christmas is still five weeks away. The mall has started playing carols and Christmas songs, and now and then I let my mind wander back to childhood Christmases, to pious baby Jesus statues, to hope and anticipation about Santa and his bag of goodies.

I knew Christmas wasn’t supposed to be just about gifts, but when I was a boy I’m afraid that’s all that filled my mind (and my imagination).

I remember being told back then, “It’s always better to give presents than to receive them”.

But I don’t think I ever really bought that line. Back then it was clearly better to receive, especially if the gifts coincided with what I’d let it be known I wanted. Of course I’ve grown up a bit (sort of) and now that I’m a bit older, with fewer wants and even fewer needs I think I’d probably be more likely to agree that it’s better to give than to receive.

Nowadays as I reflect on that piece of folk wisdom I think I’d like to change its emphasis, to remind us that it’s also really important to be able to receive gifts with graciousness and gratitude.

I sometimes feel disappointed at Christmas and birthdays, when it comes time to unwrapping the gifts. Usually they come nicely wrapped (and if they’re from me it’s obvious that it’s been done with unprofessional TLC!) Yet so often what I see is people just tearing off the wrapping paper, taking a quick look, making a polite comment, such as “that’s nice” or “we’ll have fun putting that to good use”, and then putting it aside and moving on to a repetition for each of the remaining gifts.

There’s nothing malicious in this of course, and no doubt some people will come back to each gift, admire it, marvel over it and send a note of thanks for it. The point I’m trying to make is that for many of us receiving gifts has become so commonplace we’ve lost our capacity for graciousness, gratitude, and seeing beyond the gift to the love and good wishes it is meant to both symbolise and make present. In other words, some of us run the risk of losing our sacramental imagination for the gifts we receive.

Part of this comes from the fact that we Australians live in an affluent time and place, where there is an over-abundance of ‘things’. We’ve almost come to expect that what we need, and lots of what we want, will be there for us and we’re surprised when it’s not. What a paradox; for most of our brothers and sisters on Planet Earth, it would be a surprise if what they needed was there!

Because of our wealth, we run the risk of forgetting that everything we have is a gift from God, freely given to us. God’s gifts are always given not just for our own benefit, but also that we might share them around and, with them, enrich the lives of others. This is true not just for the ‘things’ we’ve received in our lives – home, car, clothes, food, computers, gadgets, etc. – but also for the people and relationships in our lives, and for the other intangibles like health, a sense of purpose, causes to support, and the long glances (or short glimpses) of satisfaction and happiness that pepper our days.

For me, each of these is a gift to be thankful for and treasured. None is mine by right; I can’t earn it; each is pure gift, freely given by a gracious and provident God. God’s only request in return is that I not grasp the gift and hold it tightfisted for myself but rather share it round, so that it might bring joy to my brothers and sisters too.

As we approach the feast of Christmas, we’re invited to reflect on God’s great gift to us, the gift of Jesus our Saviour. In the midst of giving and receiving material gifts, it’s easy to forget that in the Incarnation God has become present (and a Present) to humanity – Emmanuel, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23) is pure gift – a gift to which we have no right, a gift we could never earn or deserve.

The heart of the feast of Christmas is to receive the gift of Jesus graciously in our lives, day by day and through our generosity and compassion, make him present to others. Then the gift that we receive becomes the gift we pass on to our brothers and sisters, for the life of the world. Even more, his grace transforms us so that we become for others the very gift we have received.

What a gift!


Anthony Steel is currently leader of the Sydney CEO Spirituality Team. He holds a Masters in Theology from La Salle University, Philadelphia. Anthony has also completed the Graduate Certificate in Christian Spirituality through Sydney Institute for Religious Development and SCD, and has attended NCEA's Spiritual Growth Leadership Institute at Boston College. Anthony has particular interest in the Ministry of Teaching, justice issues, lay spirituality, ways to pursue holiness and the prophetic role of Christians in the contemporary world.


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