As our celebrations of the birth of Christ draw near, the stores are filled with toys and books, gadgets and bright lights, ribbons and bows. We are bombarded with messages to ‘buy more’ and ‘buy now’ because we’ve convinced ourselves that happiness comes gift-wrapped. The more, the merrier.
Among Christians, it has become commonplace to bemoan the tidal wave of Christmas commercialism and contrast this with the spiritual significance of Jesus’ birth in poverty and frailty. We remind ourselves that Christmas is about celebrating God’s unfathomable love for us in giving us his only son, Jesus.
But try as we might, consumer pressure makes it difficult to give more than a Sunday morning nod to the true meaning of Christmas before we head back to the mall – at times gleefully, and at times guiltily.
Let’s toss out the guilt over giving gifts at Christmas. Gift-giving is an important part of the Christmas tradition. In fact, Christmas only has meaning because of a gift: God freely gave us the gift of Jesus Christ, our redeemer and messiah.
Heralded by trumpets and angelic throngs, Jesus arrived as the greatest gift in history. Magi spent months and even years searching for the newborn king in order to bequeath their cherished gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their gift-giving was a joyful act of adoration. To impoverished villagers like Joseph and Mary, their royal gifts must have seemed inordinately lavish and over-the-top, until they were understood as an act of worship – rich material gifts that acknowledge a richer spiritual truth.
For us, too, giving gifts can be an act of worship. James writes, “every good gift comes from above.” The abundance we possess comes from heaven, and we can express gratitude to the divine giver through loving gifts to others. Jesus also reminds us that, “as we do to others, we do unto him.” When we give to our friends, family and strangers, we are also giving to Christ.
But there is more. The inner dispositions of love, mercy, overflowing generosity and considering the needs of others reflect God’s character and give him glory. After all, generosity is one of the fruits of the Spirit, so gift-giving itself can be inspired by God.
Can these attributes be exercised without an exchange of material gifts? Certainly! Intangible gifts like spending time together, serving at a local food bank, and writing a heart-felt letter are of inexpressible worth. But tangible gifts can also deeply express our love and care.
Our motivations can become warped so that material gifts reflect more about ourselves – our pride, our wealth, our expectations of reciprocity – than the recipient. But if we are motivated to give as an act of worship and out of our desire to be kind and selfless, the actual gift doesn’t matter. The heart and soul behind a gift is what matters, not the substance of it.
This week, as you head into the stores, I pray that the Spirit of Jesus would help you reframe the shopping experience as an act of worship. Whatever and however you give, may you do it abundantly, joyfully, creatively and selflessly, because this is how Jesus has given gifts to us.
Ceal McLean lives in West Vancouver and works with the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada. This piece is part of the Canadian Baptist Advent Reader, published this year.