The Grace of Gift Giving

by in Family and Faith

I’m not a party girl. I’m often too stoic or pragmatic for celebration. At the very least, I’ve never enjoyed being celebrated, the temperature on my face rises dramatically with every pair of eyes peering my way.

But over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate celebration in a different way.

For starters, I love giving to Ryan. His birthday has long since been one of my favorite occasions, mostly because he’s good at vibrant joy and I’m good at giving gifts.

And then there’s my boys.

Bronson is easily the most animated human being I’ve ever met. The eyes-wide open, mouth in an O, knee-slapping reaction he gives to everything and anything that excites him is enough motivation to give him hundreds of gifts. I don’t. Because I find that atrocious. But I never expected to need to restrain myself, to actually want to spoil my son.

Oliver is officially experiencing his first Christmas season. He can somewhat open gifts, and he’s quickly showing signs of elated expressions – eyebrows up, arms flapping for take off, and the cutest grin this side of heaven. I’m dying to give him his Christmas gifts.

I can’t remember a time I wasn’t sensitive to the tension of materialism in the face of scarcity, the wastefulness of celebration in contrast to people’s dire, deadly needs. Different moments of my life have intensified that tension, caused my eyes to gaze upon it long enough to find it unshakable, to force me to look at all I have in a new light, a light that shows my life as one of excess, one of much, one of ease.

The fact that I woke up without so much as a shiver on a morning with temps double digits below zero is mind-blowing. What am I doing with my warmth? With my full belly? With my clothed body? With my educated mind? With my working limbs? What am I doing with what I’ve been given?

And what am I teaching my children? How do I vaccinate them against self-absorption, against entitlement, against wastefulness, against ignorance and indifference?

These questions weigh on me constantly, but during Christmastime they take on a more practical nature.

Do I give gifts at all?

It’s a large, complex question without an easy answer. More and more people advocate for giving up Christmas celebrations – forgoing presents, maybe even trees, maybe even decorations, maybe even treats.

The part of me that loves simplicity, that aches for black and white answers, loves this. It would be easier on our budget; it would easier on our calendar; it would be easier. And it makes sense on some level. There is a need for a stark contrast to our society’s Christmas endeavors; and if everyone donated the saved funds to those in need, the world would certainly be better off.

But should I teach my children that it’s shameful to celebrate? That there’s no place for extravagance in light of people’s needs?

If I were writing the story, I would probably say yes.

But I would be wrong.

While [Jesus] was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. “That’s criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year’s wages and handed out to the poor.” They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. – Mark 14: 3-5 MSG

But Jesus responds this way:

“Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly.” – Mark 14: 6-9 MSG

Immediately following those verses, Judas goes to Jesus’ enemies to betray him.

(Please note: I do not believe this passage justifies doing nothing for the poor since their continued presence is guaranteed. I have no doubt I’m not explaining all the things this difficult and confusing text reveals.) 

Clearly, Jesus thinks there’s a place for gift giving, and throughout the Gospels, it’s clear he participates in many celebrations.

Like most things, I believe the answer on Christmas gifts is somewhere in the middle. Yes, gift giving is good. Yes, forgoing gifts is good.

Practically, for our family, this means buying gifts, but not buying into the extreme materialism. This means giving to worthy organizations in honor of family members. This means packing gifts to ship half-way around the world to children who will unwrap their very first presents. This means donating items we don’t use. This means decorating cookies, a tree, and our house. This means trying to support local businesses and educating ourselves on the ways products are manufactured.

Christmas is the gift of grace. This Christmas we give gifts as a metaphor for the very first Christmas night when God gifted us his own son, Emmanuel, among us. In response to the “wonderfully significant” present, we give gifts to those around us – to our families, our friends and those in need.

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