Several years ago, while I was living in North Carolina, one of my neighbors called me on the phone and said, ‘I want you to come over to see my Christmas decorations; I’m really proud of them. Can you spare a few moments?’ I went next door and beheld what must have taken hours to prepare: a house filled to overflowing with extensive but tasteful Christmas décor. It was displayed with artistic sensitivity and skill. There was a beautifully decorated tree, supplemented with numerous garlands, wreaths, fresh greenery, lovely hand-made bows, candles, an imported nativity scene, and an assortment of beautiful yuletide ornaments. Because my wonderful neighbor had already completed her Christmas shopping, a huge number of gifts had been carefully placed under the tree. My exhausted neighbor looked at her handiwork, smiled sweetly and said, ‘Well, as you can see, Christmas has come!’ I understood what she meant, and I realized that the work she had done exemplified what Christmas meant to her. Since all her decorating and buying had been completed, Christmas had come to her house.
Actually, I could identify somewhat with the dear lady who was my neighbor because, as a child, I used to feel a deep sense of loss as our own tree and decorations were taken down the day before New Years. I experienced the persistent, painful feeling that Christmas had come and gone. The sense of loss was palpable. ‘Well, Christmas will come again next year,’ I would say to try to comfort myself.
The truth is that, in my childish immaturity, I, as did my neighbor, suffered from the same spiritual malaise. We both tended to identify Christmas with the trappings or props of the season. When the decorations were up, it was as though Christmas somehow had come; and when the decorations were stowed away, Christmas had gone until next year.
I think my neighbor and I did not constitute two separate cases. The spiritual malaise that I and my neighbor experienced is, to some extent, universal among those of us who are would-be Christians. We love to celebrate Christmas. But when we think of as Christmas is, in the New Testament, not primarily an event to be celebrated. Primarily, it is a reality to be experienced.
Today, of course, we associate Christmas with gift-giving, an indisputably worthy practice. Giving also is quite appropriate because, in Christianity, we are repeating the metaphor of God’s having given a very special gift to us: the gift of God’s self, resident in a human being. But here’s the rub. That which God gave us was not a thing, such as we usually give at Christmas. In the gospel of John, God gave the gift of presence; and, in the deepest sense, Christmas does not come until we recognize (that is, become conscious of) that presence and acknowledge it by responding to it.
But how can one respond to it? We can begin by realizing that it was not just the gift of personal presence in a human being (actually, in all human beings as the image of God); it was a particular kind of presence, and the kind of presence makes all the difference.
It is obvious that the presence of some people is not always a gift. It can be a curse. So the kind of presence is crucial. The grown up story of Christmas (I call it the adult Christmas story) in the gospel of John has no first-century decorations: no star, no magi, no shepherds, no angel choirs. The account is simple: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (the gift of personal presence); but then the account says, ‘in him was life, and the life was the light of all people’ (that’s the kind of presence it was).
The Christmas gift highlighted in the New Testament, instead of being a thing such as we usually give, is a personal presence that gives life and light to others with whom we come in contact. It is when that happens, that kind of giving and receiving, that a spiritually significant Christmas actually is experienced, not just celebrated!
What that biblical insight suggests to me is that thing-gifts can be wonderful experiences prompted by love and caring, but they are incomplete. It is in the giving and receiving of life-and-light–gifts through personal presence that Christmas really comes; and, of course, the gifts of life and light through personal presence can be experienced all year round. They obviously don’t have to be packed and stowed in a way that makes it appear that Christmas has come to an end.
What are we giving for Christmas? I cannot help but wonder whether, in the bustle and rush of the Christmas season, a truly special kind of presence, one that gives the gifts of life and light to another, doesn’t frequently get lost. Do we see spectacular decorations, sing ‘Jingle Bells’ while merchants sing ‘Jingle Bucks,’ prepare sumptuous food and eat festive meals, open a plethora of presents, then, afterward, think Christmas has come?
Do you and I ever pause to think that we ourselves are potentially the best Christmas gifts, tentative bearers of the priceless spiritual gifts of qualitative time, presence, caring and love? Isn’t it those qualities that most frequently give life and light to us when we most need them? Isn’t it when we offer these gifts that we ourselves feel most fulfilled?
The words of a perceptive poet, words that now have become almost a cliché, somehow still ring true: ‘The gift without the giver is bare.’ If we all were to take that affirmation seriously, what a transformational experience Christmas could be!
I wish for all of us a Christmas filled to overflowing with life and light; and as we continue to share generously the gift of spiritual presence with one another, each of us, in his or her own way, will make it possible for an authentic Christmas to come! Now that is something to celebrate!
The Rev. Dr. John C. Whatley III
Community Church of the Midlands