Gifts from God

The First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1:1-18

Once when I was serving in Children’s Chapel, I asked the kids what the true meaning of Christmas was. Now these kids were sharp, either their parents had been really reinforcing Sunday school teaching at home, or they had seen A Charlie Brown Christmas enough times to know the answer I was looking for. Then I asked them: “How do we celebrate Christmas?” The heavens then shook with their thunderous cry: “PRESENTS!!!”

After order was restored, I asked them the hardest question yet, “Why do we give presents on Christmas?” There was a pause. With some thought, they answered that it was because it was Jesus’ birthday, and everyone is supposed to gifts on their birthday. As you can imagine that they were quite surprised and disappointed to find out that we don’t actually know when Jesus’ birthday was.[1] So if we aren’t sure that December 25th is Jesus’ birthday, why do we give gifts on it?

When I was back in seminary, my classmates and I went through a surprisingly similar exchange in our New Testament class. Since we had a difficult time answering these questions, some concluded that we shouldn’t give gifts to celebrate Christmas! You see they too have seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and know that the true meaning of Christmas is the Incarnation of God being born on earth. They argued that the gift-giving is nothing more than a corporate conspiracy led by the devil to drive materialism and profit while exploiting the environment and workers. Especially in adulthood, Advent and Christmas feel like more of a time of managing finances, managing relatives, gaining weight, and most notably: Stress. Maybe Christmas is better celebrated without giving gifts and all the stress that entails.

Except the kids are right. Christmas really is about presents. The tradition of celebrating Christmas with giving gifts comes from a good theological understanding of the New Testament. To answer the question that I posed to the children, we give gifts on Christmas to remember the gifts that God gave us. In particular, the three major gifts God has given to humanity: Creation, the Law, and Salvation.

Unlike any of the other evangelists, John begins his Gospel with these gifts in mind. He opens with the primordial words of Genesis “In the beginning…” but gives more context for the creation event. In Genesis, God sweeps over the incomprehensible nothingness then speaks Light into being. “Let there be light”.  John tells us that Christ is the Word God spoke, bringing creation into being. This Word separated the Light from the darkness and brought through it all creation and life. All things came into being through Him. John has taken complex Trinitarian and Incarnational theology and summarized it in this first passage. Jesus is God, and the first Gift to humanity is existence itself.

The gift of creation is easy to recognize as a gift. The second great Gift that God has given to humanity Christians have trouble accepting: the Law. When we think of the Law, we tend to think of it not as a gift but as a disciplinarian. How could  the Law be a gift when it does nothing but condemn and we must be saved from it? This is the context that most Christians view the Law, and the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians seems to very much support this idea, “…we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:23-24). How can something that imprisoned us and is our disciplinarian be a gift?

The truth is most of us have come to understand the Law through the lens of Martin Luther rather than Paul. The word Paul uses that we translate as “disciplinarian” is “paidagogos”. This word does not mean “disciplinarian” in the sense of a judgment or an enforcer, it actually refers to an occupation. The paidagogos was a slave whose duty was to walk children to and from school, protect them, ensure they behaved, and taught them manners. One could argue that it is better to translate this word as “caretaker”, or perhaps, “nanny”, rather than “disciplinarian”. The Law was always meant to be a gift; something to teach, guide, and care for God’s people. If we look to Deuteronomy 6, when the Law is introduced, it is in the context of the people about to begin a new society. God is telling them that if they follow these statutes, they will have a just, righteous, and loving society. That’s why the Law is filled with ways to forgive debts, give food to the poor, protect the foreigner, and be ambassadors for God on earth; preparing the way for salvation. 

The final gift of course is Salvation, the most prominent part of the Christmas Season. John concludes the prologue by tying all the gifts together, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17). The Word becoming flesh is God becoming Incarnate in Jesus. This is why we give gifts on Christmas. We celebrate how through the salvation that Jesus brought, the world was made into a new creation.

So yes, as most children will tell you Christmas really is about gifts. The gifts that God has given us and continues to give. But this is not to be confused with materialism. Part of the reason we are so apt to fall into materialism in this season is that we don’t really know how to give or receive gifts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we are not in fact good at receiving gifts. This is another case where adults can learn from children. As adults we tend to be transactional. If I am given something of x value, I must give something to them of the equal value. We get lost in these games that really are based on pride and showing our ability to match gift for gift. But children, they understand that receiving a gift is something to be treasured. They are well aware that they can’t possibly give back something of the same value to an adult. They know that the giver of the gift isn’t expecting anything back but wants to give them something that they will treasure. The whole point of giving is to give for the joy of making another happy. This is what God wants us to reflect on not only in these twelve days, but throughout the year. Cherish creation, the Law, and the new creation that God has given us like a child. Because through these gifts we have been made the adopted children of God.

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[1] Despite the popular theory that December 25th was chosen as Christmas as a means of “Christianizing” the pagan festival of Saturnalia, there is no direct evidence for this other than both happening to occur at the end of December. The only textual evidence we have as reasoning for December 25th being chosen as Christmas was the  popular belief in the 3rd and 4th centuries that Jesus died on the same day he was conceived (based on a particular reading of John’s Gospel). Because at that point the feast of the Annunciation had been set as March 25th (again for populist theological reasons), people reasoned that Jesus must have been born on December 25th (nine months prior to March 25th). However, there is not enough evidence to say what date Jesus was born, or exactly why December 25th was chosen as the feast of Jesus’ nativity.

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