Gifts, and the giving of them, are certainly at the heart of December in our society.
The weeks before Christmas and, increasingly, the days after Christmas, have an enormous impact on the economy of the world. If sales are up in certain sectors, certain jobs are secure. If not, the economic horizon becomes cloudier.
Giving, in the economic sense of the word, is big business.
In the extended family to which I belong, we have a pre-Christmas ritual that helps us with the process of gift-giving.
As my generation become seniors, now that nephews and nieces are all adults, a new generation is arriving, and some live at great distances from others, we have decided to run a lottery. All our names are placed in a hat and each person draws a name, or if they are not present, a name is drawn for them. You learn who will be giving you a gift, and for whom you need to find a gift. At one level, it is all very practical.
But at another, it introduces a new insight into giving.
We are not “exchanging” gifts, simply giving a present to another. And that’s very freeing.
Exchanging gifts often introduces the unsettling dynamic of competition. “Will the present I give be too extravagant and therefore guilt-producing? Will it be so slight as to be insulting? Will one of these inequalities damage our relationship?”
But giving when there is no return means that all I have to concentrate on is that person and what they might need or enjoy.
And that principle brings us much closer to the heart of Christmas.
We Christians begin our affirmations of faith with words about God as Creator, but I sometimes wonder if we reflect as fully on that idea as we might if we used the word “Giver.”
The idea of God the Creator can get transformed into a picture of a celestial architect, the designer of a complex universe, brilliant and remote.
But the truth that God created us and our universe as a gift, as an absolutely fun thing to do, providing the creation with all it needs and with endless prospects for enjoyment, is where we need to start in our faith.
And Christmas is the story of how God continues to love and give even after the creation has turned away and decided that it can run the show better than its Maker.
A God who was only into exchanging gifts would have long since wearied of providing for a creation as ungrateful, uncaring, and selfish as we have managed to become.
The writer C.S. Lewis once said that if he were God, surveying the mess that human beings had made of creation, he would simply have wound the thing up, wiped the slate clean and started again (maybe).
But instead God decided on one stupendous gift, entering the creation and transforming it from within.
That’s a gift that defies the principle of “exchanging” gifts. There is nothing the creation could ever do to match that gift.
And it is a real gift, not a magical one, which either wipes us all out or waves a wand to make us all perfect in an instant.
It is a gift of complete identification with the recipient. God, almighty and eternal, becomes what we have all been, an infant, utterly dependent on others.
And, as we shall learn once again as the year progresses from Christmas to Good Friday and Easter, it is a gift whose cost includes betrayal, injustice, suffering, and death.
The act of giving, when we enter it with a real love for the person to whom we give, is a moment when we can have a glimpse of what God has been about in the stupendous, free gift of creation and the even more extraordinary gift of Jesus, Holy Infant, Holy Saviour, Holiest of Gifts. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.