Who is still shopping for gifts? Who has completely finished? Who really dislikes the second group of people? 😉 For better or for worse, gift giving is part of most people’s Christmas preparations.
The tradition of gift-giving is an old one, but it became associated with Christmas more recently. It is a relic of a pagan custom, namely, the winter solstice which in Europe occurs in December. This was celebrated in ancient Rome with gift-giving during the Saturnalia holiday, which took place that month. As Christianity became increasingly widespread in the Roman lands, the custom of gift-giving continued.
Around the year 336 AD the date of December 25 appears to have become established as the day of Jesus’s birth, and the tradition of gift-giving was reinterpreted and tied to the story of the Biblical Magi giving gifts to baby Jesus; together with another story, that of Santa Claus based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver,it slowly became a part of Christmas celebrations.(Wikipedia)
It may seem out of order to hear today’s reading from Matthew, but since it’s the part of the basis of why we give gifts, it seemed appropriate, at least at the beginning of the week it did! Let’s listen, as we hear of the wise men and their journey, as written in Matthew 2: 1-12:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so ithas been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, areby no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Since the early days of Christianity, Biblical scholars and theologians have offered varying interpretations of the meaning and significance of those particular gifts. These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/why-did-the-magi-bring-gold-frankincense-and-myrrh/
I don’t know about you, but as a child, I was much more concerned about what I got for Christmas, rather than what I gave… and I still like to receive gifts, but I love to give gifts! And I think that love is at the heart of it… yes, we probably all have someone on our Christmas list that we think we ‘need’ to buy something for… and finding something is a chore…
I have been doing a bit of grumbling this year, mostly to myself, but occasionally to others about the lack of time I seem to have for some of the tasks of Christmas. Including shopping! I realized yesterday, as I struggled to write my reflection, that there were years when I had time, but very little money… and I was stressed about all the gifts I had to buy.
I remember one Christmas, before I was in ministry, shortly after I became a self-employed financial planner, and then unexpectedly, newly single, that I shared some of the financial stress I was feeling with a friend from church. She said, “Can I get something for your son and have it be from you?” I could scarcely believe it. I told her a couple of things that he had been hoping for,and the next Sunday, she showed up with those things. She didn’t spend hundreds of dollars… maybe thirty… but more than 20 years later, I remember… and there wasn’t anything I could do to ‘repay’ her. And I didn’t feel beholden to her…you know the way you do sometimes… it was a gift of the heart… and her response to my need.
One of the reasons why I love the United Church’s Gifts With Vision giving catalogue is because it’s our response to Loving Our Neighbour as our selves. Each week, we hear stories of lives transformed through the financial gifts to the Mission and Service Fund.
Through the Mission and Service Fund, we partner with organizations around the world to help feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned and releasing those who are held captive by many things. We partner, and because these partnerships are long standing, we know that their values and our as a United Church aligns.
Perhaps I am just lazy, but I can’t be bothered to do the research on a whole bunch of other organizations. That’s just me… I know that organizations such as World Vision, Heifer International and Plan are all worthwhile organizations; in fact Plan is matching donations for some things this year. But none of those give me the same sense that contributing is following Jesus… Jesus who included everyone, who broke down barriers and who was one of us. Because we are in fact a church… and follow the way of Jesus, or least attempt to follow the way of Jesus.
Back in 2012, perhaps when the Gifts with Vision catalogue first came out, I took Jayde out Christmas shopping; I had with me a Gifts With Vision Catalogue with me and told her that part of her Christmas gift that year was to choose something from the catalogue. I told her how much money I usually spent on her and how whatever she chose would come out of that money, much to my surprise, she decided to spend more than half of what I usually spend on her on Gifts with Vision items. It was all on feeding hungry children… when I asked her if she was sure, she said, “Yes, I can’t stand to think of Lucy, her little sister, being hungry. I do this with both girls now, and last year Jayde said something like this, “Oh, I love this part of Christmas.”
We can’t ‘repay’ Jesus with our works. We don’t get rewarded for feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, releasing those who are in bondage of many kinds. The opportunity to do this is our reward. Our gift is that we have the ability to do it. I know that many of you spend countless hours at various places to help a hurting world… at Caring and Sharing… at Dorcas Place… at the school library… teaching newcomers English… creating beauty in the community… in volunteer efforts with the fire halls… with seniors… with children…
That is love… love in action… love that is a response to Jesus… And that we do these things because of our faith. And we do these things out of a desire to somehow mend the world. And we do these things out of love…A love that is warm and protective… like the love of parents for a newborn child… A love that is passionate, and demanding… like a new relationship….A love that is stubborn and resistant… like a teenager challenging rules… A love that is accepting and trusting… like God’s love for us… A love that will not let us go.
So bring your gifts to Jesus… Bring your gold… or your cheque book and debit card…
Bring your frankincense… your presence that sweetens and refreshes… Bring your myrrh…your oil of gladness…
As Isaiah says it so eloquently,
6 For a child
has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of bearing gifts. Amen.
Matthew 2: 1-12, Isaiah 9:6 – ECM