Among the many traditions that have grown up around our contemporary celebration of the Christmas season, gift-giving has come to dominate. Unfortunately, this is not always for the best reasons. For many sectors of the retail industry, the end-of-year holiday season has come to represent more than a third of annual sales, so there are strong economic interests and large advertising budgets encouraging people to spend “money they can’t afford on presents you neither need nor want” as writer Frederick Buechner put it. Many of us feel the pressure to give gifts and the stress of trying to think of gifts that will be appreciated by family, friends and others we might feel obligated to give to. And then there’s the financial strain that’s common at this time of year—and in its aftermath.
On the other hand, we have also felt the gratification when we have been able to give a gift to someone we care about that is something they need or want or that expresses our appreciation for them and their contribution to our lives. And these gifts do not need to be the most expensive or even creative; at their best, they are a way of saying thank you and showing that we care.
When we get this attitude right, we can recognise the truth in a statement that Paul quoted from Jesus—which, intriguingly, is not included in any of the four Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35*). Of course, this principle is not primarily about Christmas, but it is relevant to Christmas because it is a time of year when we tend to be more focused on giving.
And, unlike many of the traditions around Christmas, the practice of giving has some foundation in the story of the Jesus’ birth, albeit with further layers of tradition grown around it. The Magi—or wise men—“from eastern lands” (Matthew 2:1) arrived in Jerusalem sometime after the birth of Jesus, seeking the newborn king of the Jews. Directed to Bethlehem, “they entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and
myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
Their three gifts have led to the assumption of three wise men and their story has been imagined, embellished and explained in countless ways. The expensive and exotic gifts seem hardly appropriate for the occasion and out of character with much of the rest of the story and its characters. But, although no broad historical precedent exists for this link and Christmas gift-giving is probably a more recent tradition, the Magi’s example links gift-giving with the story of the birth of Jesus.
However, even when considered in their best light, the gifts of the Magi pale in comparison with the ultimate gift in the story of the birth of Jesus: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
The various writers of the New Testament would struggle to express and explain the magnitude of God’s “inexpressible” or “unspeakable” gift: “Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” (2 Corinthians 9:15). They often used the word grace to describe God’s generosity—giving to humanity much more than we deserve. And they urged that the generosity of God they had experienced and come to understand in Jesus was the basis for relying on His overwhelming goodness and provision in all aspects of our lives: “Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32).
This was also the basis for a generous attitude and way of living in our world. The Gift Himself—Jesus—would teach His disciples that they were to “give as freely as you have received!” (Matthew 10:8). But this command includes a significant precursor to genuine generosity: we must first be willing to receive.
Giving does not always come from the purest of motives. It can be a response of guilt for the excesses and shortcomings of our lives. There are those who are willing to exploit such unease in coaxing us to give, even with good intentions. One of the cliches of the Christmas season is that it is “the time for giving”. Another is that because many of us have so much, we should take the opportunity to give to those who have less than us. There is truth in such statements, but they are often not the best motivation for giving.
Such an attitude can also reduce giving to an act of power. We give because we can or because we wish to think of ourselves—or be seen by others—as generous. In short, even our best acts can so easily become more about us than any would-be beneficiaries.
This is why we need to learn how to receive. When stripped of Christmas’s contrived good will, the story of the birth of Jesus is primarily about receiving the gift of Jesus. While we know so little about the motivations and experiences of the Magi, it is possible that if they merely delivered their gifts and returned “to their own country by another route” (Matthew 2:12), they could have missed the point of their quest. When we learn how to receive with the humility that comes from truly recognising our need of grace, our other attitudes, actions and motivations begin to change.
So as we retell the story of Jesus’ birth, we ought to spend time thinking about receiving this Gift and what this means for our lives. As much as possible, shift the focus from the giving and the getting. Instead practise the art of receiving; practise humility, gratitude and grace. Allow the Gift of God, His generosity and His promises to change the world in us and around us. Yes, giving is good, but it is also “blessed to receive”—and receiving is the foundation for the best kinds of giving.
This article is extracted with permission from Nathan Brown’s new book, Advent: Hearing the good news in the story of Jesus’ birth (2020, Signs Publishing Company). See advertisement on opposite page.
* Bible verses in this article are taken from the New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used with permission.