Christmas Eve 2011
William G. Carter
For all the truth of Christmas, at least one lie has crept in. It lingers at the heart of the holiday. It infects people of good will. It sneaks into our greetings of one another, especially children. And the lie is this: “You get the gift only if you are good.” Where in the world did that come from?
Some would pin it down to 1934, in a new song composed by John Coots and Haven Gillespie, and sung on a radio show by Eddie Cantor. The song declared, “He knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” Everybody knows that’s a lie. He doesn’t know. Only God knows, and God’s view of Christmas never depends on whether we are bad or good.
Where does this come from? Apparently there was a European legend in the 1700’s. If you were on the “naughty list,” you would be visited by Krampus, a demon with horns and hooves. According to legend, Krampus would wake the bad children and whip them. “So go back to sleep, little ones,” said Mama. “Not a peep until dawn.”
The sentiment lingers. We ask the children, “Have you been a good girl, a good boy?” It’s a painful thing to say to them, especially at a time of year when so many adults are so poorly behaved. So much going on, and patience is in short supply. And we put our kids in front of the television, the advertising is relentless and they discover wants and desires they previously did not have. It’s already a tough time for the children: four new viruses circulating the school, way too much chocolate available, far too many things to do, with all of the seasonal overload.
Then we say, “If you are good you will get something good for Christmas. Johnnie, stop hitting your sister.” We say this as if we know the standard for goodness, as if gift-giving depends on behavior, as if goodness will always be rewarded. It’s a lie. It has nothing to do with Christmas, with the real Christmas.
The truth of Christmas is that the Gift comes whether or not you are good. In fact, it may be precisely because we are not good that the Gift comes anyway. Did you ever hear that verse from the New Testament? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).” God doesn’t wait until we are good before being good to us. That is the Gospel.
This is the Gift announced to the shepherds. The angels declare, “God is giving a gift to the world. It is a Baby who will save you.” The angels did not wait until the shepherds scrub up or speak and talk in religious ways. There was no attempt to coerce them into the prevailing self-righteous society. The Gift was for them as they were.
The truth of Christmas is that the Baby comes even if there is no ledger book of how well behaved anybody is. God gives the Gift, not because they are good – but because they are loved. The One who gives them the gift loves them. That’s why it is a gift.
So much of the gift giving around Christmas really is about something else. Sometimes it is merely business. The merchant hands out the calendars so that every time we look at the calendar, we remember the merchant. It is not really a gift, it is advertising.
Sometimes gifts are given in endless obligation. Consider the exchange of hostess gifts. We invited her, she came with a gift. She invited us, so we have to get something for her. Just make sure it’s not the same thing. Or maybe not; I am thinking about creating the Universal Gift for Hostesses, or UGH. You lay out twenty bucks to acquire the thing, give it, she gives it back, and you give it to her next time, and so on endlessly.
And then there is the drama surrounding the annual extended family gift exchange. You draw names, put together a list, and e-mail it out. I don’t know him very well, but I must get him something. He wore a camouflage cap to Thanksgiving dinner, so maybe I will buy him a gift card at the sporting goods store. On Christmas, he will open his gift card. This is a lot easier than getting to know that stranger.
But how beautiful it is, how rare it is, when you can offer a gift to somebody because you love them. Not because you have to, but because you want to. Not because they are good or kind, but because somehow God’s goodness is working itself out in you. And so, you give the gift.
I have a friend who lost a lot of precious items in September’s flood. I felt the burden to help replace some of what he lost. For three months, I schemed. Starting small, the project grew. Each time one arrived in the mail, ready to be wrapped, my heart was full of glee. My heart gets full of a lot of things, but glee is pretty rare. My wife said, “You are really enjoying this, aren’t you?” Well, of course I was. I love my friend and I could imagine his delight. It was a thrill.
Last evening at the home of church musicians, I was presented with a gift. It’s a tacky picture of the Last Supper. If you move it just right, Jesus appears and his eyes follow you around the room. I laugh at kitsch like this, and with gratitude to Alan and Susan, I feel loved.
Isn’t that what we want our gifts to do? To express love, to create more love. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. But it’s the thought, the consideration, the precise selection. That can be a lot of work, but we do it willingly for the people we love.
God does this willingly for you and for me. We don’t know enough about the shepherds to know if they were good or greasy. But Christmas was given to them out of love. Or there’s King Herod; certainly he wasn’t very good at all. He seemed to know that the Gift was so amazing it would take over everything, including his throne. So he tried to dismiss the gift, and it didn’t work. Even the world still says this, “We don’t this Baby Jesus, and we sure don’t want him when he grows up.” So the world pushed him out – yet he came back a few days later. He may often stay hidden, but he will not be dismissed.
The Gift of God in Jesus Christ comes regardless of how we behave. It is there in the Appalachian carol. “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I.” I am ornery enough that I want to fix the grammar of that verse and sidestep the sentiment. Yet Christmas comes to me, even though I am that ornery. It comes for you too.
Thank God for that. Thank God that the holy generosity of heaven is greater than the meanness of earth. Thank God that frustrated parents and confused children are still loved no matter how hard the holidays are to navigate. Thank God that even though people have the capacity to make great messes out of their lives, nobody ruins Christmas, the real Christmas. Because it is bigger and holier and greater than anything we could ever manufacture.
This is the gift: God loves the world so much that God comes into the world. God keeps coming toward us even if we push him away. God comes to us in Jesus, to embrace us in grace until the day comes when we become grateful.
The Gift is yours for the receiving. From the view of God the Giver, not a single one of us is despised or left out. Be still long enough to hear the news: you are loved eternally. That truth puts you in the presence of angels.
(c) William G. Carter
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