Response: December 2014 Issue

Responsively Yours: Christmas Gifts

Responsively Yours: Christmas Gifts
Ubuntu day of service: Harriett Olson serving at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Louisville, Ky., as part of Assembly 2014.

Gift giving is a significant theme in the stories about the birth of Jesus, and gift giving has taken a prominent role in the secular traditions that have grown up around the celebration of Christmas. And so, preparing for this holiday season turns my thoughts to gifts — the ones we bring, the ones we receive, the ones that surprise us, the ones that come from unexpected places in unfamiliar wrappings.

As we receive it, the story of the first Christmas is a lonely story. Unlike their later journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with a caravan of family when Jesus was 12, Mary and Joseph seem to travel alone on the first Christmas, bound for Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem for the census ordered by Roman Emperor Augustus. The biblical record doesn't provide stories of baby showers or family support for the couple about to deliver their first child while in transit. People do come with gifts for them, but the gift givers we meet in the biblical stories are strangers not family and friends. It's almost odd that the biblical story — and our traditions around it — focus so much on the actions of the "outsiders." Not only are the gift givers unknown to Mary and Joseph, they are also outsiders in a religious context that values tribe and identity. The people who come bearing gifts for the Holy Family engage in spiritual and wisdom practices that are different than those of the Hebrew prophets and people.

And these outsiders came with strange gifts. Really, when did you last notice gold, frankincense and myrrh being given to a baby? OK, even today, money is always a welcomed gift, but these first Christmas gifts reflected the cultural expectations of the givers for what was appropriate for a new king. I imagine Mary and Joseph scratching their heads once the visitors had left. But perhaps the importance of the unusual and unexpected gifts became clear once they realized that they too would have to venture to a strange country to protect the child.

The gifts of the Magi outsiders were not the only gifts given at the first Christmas. While Mary's pregnancy was a crisis for the betrothed couple, Jesus' birth was an unimaginable gift to the whole cosmos: God's in-breaking on the way from creation to re-creation! Jesus took on frailty — "not counting equality with God as something to be grasped but emptying himself" (Philippians 2:6b).

Does our Christmas gift giving reflect this gift? Do we give gifts that speak to our expectations for one another, that point to a significant future? Perhaps you've received gifts like this, Gifts given because of an intuition about what may be needed or appropriate, gifts that speak of a tradition that is strange for you, gifts that are so unexpected, gifts we struggle to receive because they don't seem to "match" us.

As United Methodist Women members, let's reconsider the gifts and gift givers surrounding that first Christmas — and what they mean for us today. What gifts do we bring to the world and to the communities we serve? Kindness? Compassion? Willingness to see and to stand with those who are oppressed? Such gifts are a way of responding to God's astounding blessings, a way of worship, an acknowledgement of the in-breaking of the kin-dom of God.

Signs and wonders come to those who watch and to those who go out of their way to see. This Christmas, and in the year to follow, let's put ourselves in places to see the signs. Like the shepherds on the first Christmas, let's take the risk of going forth "to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2:15b).

Harriett Jane Olson
General Secretary
United Methodist Women

Posted or updated: 11/25/2014 11:00:00 PM