All the pre-festival rush is over and for now we can enjoy a time of quiet and thanksgiving. For the rest of the day we shall be caught up again in the family rituals and customs of the season, with meal preparations and dealing with over-excited children and grand-children
From Epiphany to December 25
The customs of this festival are many and different in different parts of the world. The history of the festival day is also interesting. The earliest church, before it left the confines of the Mediterranean, rejoiced to recall God’s wonderful gift to human kind on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany. It is here that we find the beginning of the custom of giving gifts at Christmas. In later centuries, as the church expanded into the cold, dark Germanic north, new dates were given and new customs introduced.
The church from its very birth has never grown in a vacuum, but in a culture permeated with older religions. Spiritual forces and gods were everywhere as were the places and the rituals that attended them. Two strategies were used; one was opposition on an intellectual and legal level, the other, was to incorporate some of the less objectionable elements of the old religions. This happened in the case of Christmas. Some German bishops of the 8th century decided that the pagan rites of the winter solstice must stop. They were wily enough not to choose the exact date, December 21; any sensible Thor worshipper would see through that one. So for northern Christianity, December 25th became the time to recall that in the deepest gloom of the year the bright light of God shines forth; at a later time, but from the same provenance came the fir tree covered in lights to our ceremonies, a sight that would have astounded any Galilean peasant.
Persistence of Gift Giving
Whatever customs have been introduced to Christmas in various parts of the world, the custom of gift-giving has remained central, not surprisingly because the focus of any theological understanding of this day is the amazing gift of God to us in the birth of Jesus. The gospels try to give us a feeling of the magnitude of the gift in the stories of brightness in the dark, the shining Angels announcing a great gift to the shepherds and singing a chorus of praise. We also get the message of the amazing nature of this gift in Matthew’s story of the wise men of the East who bring gifts of magnificence and deep symbolism to a little shed.
We all love gifts: both to receive them, but also to give them. Receiving them has a certain ambiguity: do I really need another packet of handkerchiefs? I recall how I received with some reservations the “useful gifts” that came from a Godmother – a pair of gloves one year, handkerchiefs another (what eight year old looks kindly on crisp linen squares?) and a book of devotion on yet another. On the other hand, there was an uncle who knew just what I wanted. A chemistry set, guaranteed to wreak havoc at the kitchen sink, an addition to the mecano set or a magician’s kit.
As I grew older, a greater appreciation grew of gifts that were carefully selected to meet real needs as well as to give pleasure. I also began to learn the joy of giving gifts as well as receiving them.
I am sure we all share these personal experiences and they are all woven into the meaning of Christmas.
The center of the Christmas message is God’s unimaginably generous gift to us. What, precisely, is that gift that formal theological language calls the ‘incarnation’? It is a gift carefully chosen to meet the real and desperate needs of the human race, which has tried to leave out God, even to replace God, in our affairs. At first sight God’s gift at Christmas might seem odd. What can a small defenseless baby do for us? But this is a gift of a very special child, one destined to make clear the Divine presence in all human affairs in spite of the mess that human self-will and pride have created. God’s gift in the birth of this child, and in all that followed from it, is an offer to humanity of reconciliation with God, with one another and, finally, within each torn human psyche.
The story of Christmas, in Matthew’s telling of it, also speaks of gifts of gratitude that are brought to the manger. The gifts are, on the face of it, a strange mixture; the gold, certainly, would be welcomed by a poor peasant family; but a bunch of joss sticks and a pot of strange smelling ointment were hardly immediately useful. Commentators get us out of this awkward moment of unwrapping a gift that seems oddly inappropriate, by reminding us of the deep symbolism: gold for a king, incense for the worship of God and myrrh for funeral rites. Perhaps, though, Christina Rossetti gets it right in her poem, In the Bleak Mid-Winter:
What can I give him, / Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd / I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man / I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him - / Give my heart.
A 14th Century Miracle Play
What, indeed, can we give as a gift to this God of immeasurable love, who, in spite of general human nastiness and individual sins of self- centeredness, gives us the assurance of the divine presence in our midst. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, a poet and an amazingly subtle theologian, addresses this very question in a collection of sermons entitled A Ray of Darkness.
He quotes from one of the 14th century Miracle plays that were performed in churches at the Christmas season. Three ordinary Yorkshire workmen bring gifts; they are the Shepherds not to be outdone by the high and mighty Lords of the East. The first one says, “Lo, he laughs, my sweeting! Ah! A well fair meeting! Have a bob of cherries”. The second one goes on, “Hail! I kneel and I cower. A bird have I brought to my bairn.” And the third one concludes:
“Hail! Put forth thy hand. I bring thee but a ball: Have and play thee withall, and go to the tennis.” (22-23).
What a wonderful collection of gifts for a little child: a bunch of cherries, a canary in a cage and a tennis ball. Could anything say more clearly that God has entered into human life, its joys as well as its woes, than that last line: take the ball and go to play a game of tennis; go and express that true humanity through which the light of God will shine.
Williams comments, “What can I give him, poor as I am? What indeed! For God today has recreated the world and refashioned you and me in his own image. God today has burst open the frontiers of all possible and imaginable experience and come among us”… The Child through whom and in whom God comes to us “reaches out his hand and touches the bob of cherries that a [Yorkshire] workman offers him. And for the reaching out there is no exchange, there is no fit return we can make. God’s pure causeless, gratuitous love can have no answer, except some faint fumbling echo of that very gratuity … itself: the gift too great to make sense of. All we can do, like the (workmen), is to offer our meaningless little presents. All we can give to God is the equivalent of what the (workmen) here give; a packet of sweets, a canary in a cage, a tennis ball.” (ibid. 23).
Our Fumbling Gifts
Those ‘fumbling’ gifts will include all that we can do for others, the care we give to children and older people, the patience with which we forbear those who irritate us, the joys we share with family and friends. They will include our often puny efforts at prayer and our taking part in worship, but all these little offerings are taken up in a Great Thanksgiving, an ongoing Eucharist, a great Eucharistoumen, Thank You, which is, in the last analysis, the only return we can give for so immense a gift as we celebrate today.