I have two favorite stories I like to watch every Christmas. One is “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ classic tale of an elderly miser redeemed after the visitation of three spirits. The other is, on its face, very different (except for the fact Jim Carrey has played both characters). In “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” a mean old creature tries to steal Christmas from the residents of Whoville, only to be saved from his grinchiness by the contrasting sweetness of Cindy Lou Who.
What’s similar is that these stories represent everything we love about the Christmas spirit- the power of Christmas to turn even the worst of us into generous, giving people. These are great stories, and I enjoy them every year. Yet, there’s something subtly “un-Christmas-y” about them.
We often call Christmas the giving season. We really, really like to think of ourselves as givers at Christmastime—magnanimous, generous, powerful, having an abundance. If I’m the one who’s giving, I’m in control; I say what, how much, and to whom.
Receiving is different. Receiving always makes us feel a little uncomfortable. Have you ever had someone give you a gift when you hadn’t bought one for them? If you’re honest, didn’t it make you feel a little awkward, perhaps even uttering the classic line, “But, I didn’t get you anything!” in a somewhat defeated tone? Truthfully, there have been times I actually went out and bought a gift for someone for whom I didn’t have a gift, but who gave me one, just to eliminate the feeling that I owed him. Embarrassing, but true. Whether it’s a gift, or a compliment, or a generous act of service, we feel often feel compelled to return it, because we’re not good receivers.
It may be more blessed to give than receive, but it’s often harder to receive. When we truly receive, we have to be vulnerable. We have to admit we have nothing to give in return, and that we can’t pay it back. I don’t like that, because I don’t like to have to rely on other people. It represents a loss of control, and I like basking in the illusion of control, don’t you?
If there’s anything a global pandemic should have taught us this past year is that very little is actually in our control. If you’re like me (and this year, we all were) you spent most of our time this year in situations that were not of our making, that you couldn’t control, and that while you might have complained about it, there was very little you could do to change things.
Our separation from God through sin was that way, too. We were dead. Not mostly dead. Dead dead. There was nothing we could do, no way we could restore ourselves by cleaning up, or through our own self-reclamation projects. All our best efforts could just generate prettier versions of our still completely deprived selves. Then, God broke through. As William Willimon notes, “God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done.” The story of Christmas is so completely extraordinary, so completely God and not us, that all the shepherds and wise men could do, and all we can do, is stand there, gaping, with our mouth wide open, and receive it.
This is a hard gift to receive, and that has always been true. Centuries ago, John Wesley said, “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.” It is a fearsome gift, this gift of grace. It requires nothing of us, and yet requires everything. It costs nothing, but calls for an acknowledgment of the bankruptcy of our hearts. We don’t have to battle for it, but it necessitates our absolute surrender. It the gift of life that entails dying to all that we were, and confessing to our God and our stubborn, rebellious hearts that we are broken, and captive, and need to be free.
It is good to be generous givers as a response of love and obedience to God’s gracious work in our lives. Christ says so again and again. But, first and foremost, the story of the Nativity in the gospel of Luke, the story of Christmas, is actually about receiving. Christmas teaches us how to be good receivers. That is the true measure of discipleship—to see life and everything in it as a gift. Every time I’m given a Christmas gift, whether it is a thing or a blessing that some kind person has bestowed upon me, it gives me a chance to practice gratefulness, to look the giver in the eye and thank them genuinely. In so doing, I’m reminded of my complete and total dependence on God as the Giver of all good things.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a year like 2020, at least not in recent history, to humble and mold and shape me as a man, as a leader, and as a follower of Jesus Christ. I really hope every year isn’t like 2020, but I’m so very grateful for it. I’m so very grateful for all of you, too, as you have been God’s provision and His markers of grace in my life. I pray for a blessed Christmas season for you and your family, and I look forward to what God will do through all of us in 2020.
Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.