I love watching the people I care about open the gifts I’ve chosen/made for them. I get so much joy out of watching their faces—that look of curious anticipation as the parcel is handled, shaken, rattled. I especially love watching as the wrapping is excitedly torn off, eyes light up and little squeals of delight erupt from smiling lips—that’s such a great feeling!
When I was growing up, part of our family tradition included Mum or Dad being designated as the ‘gift-giver-outer-er’ (yes, that’s a made-up word). It was the gift-giver-outer-er’s job to select a gift from under the tree, read the label and pass it to the person named on the tag. Gifts were given out one at a time so we could all savour the moment of the gift exchange, and—most importantly—thank the one who’d chosen the gift. And yes, that included thanking Nana for the unwanted socks and handkerchiefs—she still got a big hug and a kiss.
Thanking the gift-giver was a key part of what made the gift exchange special, personal and meaningful.
When I got married, I realised that not every family had the same Christmas traditions as my family.
My first Christmas with my husband was spent with his extended family. Screeds of cousins and miscellaneous grandparents were all in attendance. We were poor students at the time, so I had lovingly made most of the gifts we were giving, and I was really looking forward to seeing how they were received.
Well, Christmas morning came, and we all gathered around the tree. An uncle was given the role of Santa (not the gift-giver-outer-er) and began to hand out gifts. But to my horror, the gifts were not handed out one at a time—oh no—they went out in bunches and clumps. Before I knew it, I was caught in a frenzy of present opening chaos! Paper was flying as gifts were opened, and I found myself straining my neck to see who had what and what was being opened by whom. From across the room I could see my hand-painted shell mobile being dangled by an aunt. I heard my husband call out, ‘Jules made it herself!’ But before I could hear her response, someone was thrusting a gift with my name on it into my hands. It was Christmas mayhem!
The significance behind the exchange of gifts—the response and the thankfulness—was lost. As a gift giver I was left feeling robbed of something. As a receiver of gifts, there was unfinished business as I tried to figure out who I needed to thank for which gift.
I wonder what Christmas morning is like for you and those you spend it with? No doubt you’ll have Christmas traditions of your own—certain ways of doing things, expectations around who does what, hopes about where you might spend the day and with whom—especially this Covid-19 year with travel restrictions and the high demand for quarantine facilities with limited availability. It’s Christmas, but for some, how gifts are exchanged will look different. In fact, for many of us, the whole concept of exchanging gifts may take on a new significance. Throughout the world, lockdowns have caused us to reconsider what matters most to us. This year has reminded us that life itself is a gift.
Gifts were a special part of the very first Christmas. At first glance, those gifts seemed more of an offering than an exchange. And yet we now know there was a divine exchange taking place, it just wouldn’t become clear for another 33 years. The exchange that began at the cradle was completed at the cross—the gift of sacrificial love was given to us.
Now, 2020 years on from that first Christmas, commercialism still has nothing on gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts were carefully selected and prophetically announced not only Jesus’ identity and who he would become, but also what he would be required to do in order for us to understand the nature of the gift he is to the world.
The Magi entrusted Joseph and Mary with three jaw-dropping gifts. They gave the gift of gold—gold for the King of Kings—symbolising Jesus’ kingship and divinity. Of course, Jesus was no ordinary king. He wasn’t born in a palace, but a cowshed. He didn’t become the powerful overthrower of Roman occupation the Jews thought they needed. Instead, Jesus’ royalty was seen in his humility and the way he treated the poor and the vulnerable—with dignity and grace. Jesus sought out the sinners and the lost and treated them like royalty. Jesus treated people—even difficult people—with honour. He served them. He healed them. He loved them. It was always about what he could give.
How will you respond to the King of Kings this Christmas? Is Jesus your King? The leader of your life? The One you worship not just on Sunday or even at Christmas, but is Jesus King of your whole life? This Christmas, will we follow the example of Jesus the Servant King—will we give of ourselves? Will we serve? Will it be about others, or about ourselves? Will we treat people with the grace and dignity King Jesus modelled?
The Magi also gave the gift of frankincense. Frankincense was used in temple worship. This gift symbolised Jesus’ function as the priest of all priests—our High Priest. We have a direct line to God the Father, through Christ the Son. What will we do with that fact of our faith? Will we revel in the privilege we have in this part of the world to worship freely this Christmas? Will we take advantage of the gift of prayer and come boldly to the throne of grace? Will we take time to stop and be grateful and intercede for those who do not share this privilege at this point in the history of the Church? Will we unwrap those gifts of prayer and worship afresh this Christmas? Will we pray for a world that so desperately needs to know there is a Saviour?
This brings me to the final gift the Magi brought, the gift of myrrh. Myrrh was used to anoint the dead. This gift prophesied the sacrifice Jesus would make for the world—the Christ-child was born to die. To receive the gift of myrrh must have been so bewildering and confronting for Mary and Joseph. It would be like receiving the gift of a pre-paid burial plot at your child’s dedication. A most bizarre gift, and yet the crux of the Christmas message, because we cannot celebrate the cradle without remembering the cross. There is no point to Christ’s birth if not for his death and resurrection. Salvation came into the world at Christmas—a precious, costly gift disguised as an innocent child.
Like Christ, we are called to become ‘living sacrifices’. Romans 12 urges us not to conform to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. To be a living sacrifice is to embody the mission and message of Christ—to die to self for the sake of others. Who can we ‘bring life’ to this Christmas?
Jesus came to be our King, our High Priest and the once and for all sacrifice for our sins. What a gift! Let’s not get carried away by the chaos of a consumer Christmas. Don’t miss the joy of the divine gift exchange; receive the ultimate gift—Jesus Christ. God gave us a Saviour and through him we receive the gift of salvation and the promised abundant and eternal life. As Christmas draws near, I invite you to pause and thank God for this incredible gift. And then share this gift with others!