I’ve got a question for you. What do you like better – giving gifts or receiving gifts? Now seriously – think about it. What do you enjoy more? If you enjoy giving gifts more, raise your hand. Now, if you enjoy receiving gifts more, raise your hand.
It’s a little unfair. It’s one of those questions that has only one socially acceptable answer. But even so, I’m sure many of you – probably most of you – really do get more joy from giving than receiving. Why do you suppose that is?
A few years ago I bought a new car. Whenever I do that, I usually pass the old car to one of the kids. It was my son’s turn to get the car, but he already had one of my older cars, and I asked him what he wanted to do with the older one. I suggested that he could sell it. He was a university student at the time and could have used the money. His answer completely floored me. He said: “I’d like to give it away to someone who really needs a car. Is there someone at your old church – Good Shepherd – who would need it?” So I put him in touch with someone at the parish office.
A couple of weeks before Christmas that year, he delivered the car to a young couple who had a small baby and no transportation. The couple gave him a letter, and a family picture that still hangs on my son’s fridge. Among other things, the letter said that my son’s gift had inspired the young father to use the car to help deliver food to the hungry on Christmas Eve.
I called my son last night to ask him the same question I just asked you: “What was a better experience, getting the newer car (it had lots more bells and whistles!) or giving the older car to that family?” There was no hesitation. He said that giving away the older car was a much more rewarding experience. In fact, giving away that car had changed his life.
Why is that? It seems so backward. Aren’t we supposed to want lots of things for ourselves? Aren’t we supposed to spend our lives accumulating stuff? Then why did my son give the car away and feel so good about it? Why is it that so many of you raised your hand, telling me that you were more excited about giving presents than receiving presents? Why is it that at a funeral eulogy, you never hear a word about how much money the person made during their life, but how much they gave to other people?
We need look no farther than the first chapter of the book of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” You see, when God made us in his image and likeness, we were “hard wired” for giving – because God gives – and gives in abundance.
And that’s what we celebrate on Christmas: God’s amazing gift to us – his son, Jesus. But just like my son’s decision to give away the older car caught me totally by surprise, the arrival of Jesus is, in many ways, the opposite of what you would expect. The Saviour of the world didn’t descend from the clouds as a full-grown warrior king – he was born a helpless child – totally dependent on the very people he created! He wasn’t born in a fancy palace – he was born in a barn. I think we sometimes look at the nativity scene and romanticize how wonderful and quaint it must have been. Well imagine giving birth in a run-down garage in a back alley in Edmonton – in the winter! There’s nothing so quaint about that. And you mothers, can you imagine riding on a donkey for days when you’re nine months pregnant?
We heard that Jesus’ birth was first greeted by shepherds. Again, when we hear “shepherd,” we get visions of Jesus, the Good Shepherd and think how wonderful is must have been to have the shepherds there. Well, shepherds weren’t held in such high regard back then, and I would guess that coming straight from the fields, they didn’t even smell very good. The Magi, now that made more sense – they were highly-regarded people. But the FIRST to see Jesus were the lowly, uneducated, and probably smelly shepherds.
How do we make sense of this? Clearly, God’s ways are not our ways. Was God trying to teach us something by bringing his son into the world in such humble circumstances? Well, possibly, but I think it’s more likely that God was just being God. Power, as we judge power – is not important to God. Possessions are not important to God. Status is not important to God. What’s important to God is LOVE – none of the other stuff mattered!
And love is more than attraction, more than affection, more than passion – it is pure self-giving. When you truly love someone, you want only to give – not to get something in return – just to give!
And that’s why so many of you raised your hands when I asked whether you were more excited about giving than receiving presents. There’s a part of all of us that understands at a very basic level that we are made in God’s image and likeness – and there is a spark of the overwhelming love and self-giving of God in each one of us.
Abbott William of Saint Thierry said it this way in the 12th century. He was talking about the mystery of God’s son being born as a human person: “And this is clearly the reason: you first loved us so that we might love you – not because you needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving you.” We reflect the image and likeness of God when we give and when we love. We connect with the goodness – the God-ness – in us. And it is in connecting with the God-ness in ourselves that we become truly human.
Last year, I asked you to help me close the Christmas homily with a celebration of love. I would like to do the same this year. Heck, maybe we’re starting a tradition.
So please, do something for me.
Turn to the person next to you – even if you don’t know that person very well – and say: Merry Christmas – I love you.
And now, turn to the person on the other side and say: Merry Christmas – I love you.
And now, say after me:
People of Holy Trinity – Merry Christmas – I love you.
People of Canada – Merry Christmas – I love you.
People of the World – Merry Christmas – I love you.
God, our heavenly Father – Merry Christmas – I love you.
Jesus, our brother – Merry Christmas – I love you.
I think you understand!
Merry Christmas to all of you – I love you.