Several Christmases ago, I took two Christmas gifts to a local pack-and-ship store; both gifts were going to recipients who lived quite some distance from me. One was a gag gift for a seminary classmate of mine and the other was a book for the young children of one of my former students.
Despite the fact that I had labelled the parcels clearly, the pack-and-ship store swapped the mailing labels and sent the gifts to the wrong recipients. My seminary classmate was confused by the fact that he had received a children’s story book, and my former student’s youngsters were confused by the gag gift. It took several phone calls, emails, and additional trips to the pack-and-ship store in order to get the gifts to their proper recipients. Christmas gift-giving is fraught with risks, some of which are even more challenging than getting carefully chosen gifts to their intended recipients.
The consumer culture in which we live affords us a wide variety of choices for gift-giving, but it can also devalue persons by equating them with the objects that are given and received. In a consumer culture, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of materialism and to become victims of our own anxieties and disappointments. Christmas has become almost entirely a feast of sentimentality. I’d like to offer a corrective to the commoditized nature of what Christmas has become.
The Scripture readings for this feast of Christmas intend to expose the shallowness of materialism and sentimentality. Today’s Gospel reading describes accurately and completely God’s intentions behind the birth of the Word of God in human flesh. The Gospel describes the Incarnate Word as “God-with-us.” (Mt. 1:23)
The Gospel author was prescient enough to describe precisely how God is with us. Lacking an explanation of precisely what the name God-with-us means, we might well fall into a false understanding of how God is present to us. It is possible, for example, that some people might imagine an angry, vengeful God present in human existence. Others might imagine an implacable God who demands constant sacrifice for the purpose of appeasement.
As many images of God are possible, the Gospel spells out precisely who God is and how God is present to us in Jesus. God is present to us as an unequivocal statement about God’s contentment with human nature. Jesus came to announce the good news of reconciliation with God and neighbor. There is no harsh judgmentalism in the Incarnation; there is no threat of rejection. The birth of the Word of God in human flesh is an act of eternal approval for the created goodness of human nature. I’d like to suggest that you follow God’s lead for your celebration of Christmas.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the materialism of giving and receiving gifts. It’s very easy to reduce people to the ephemeral value of what they give or what they’re given. God’s gift of the Incarnate Word, on the other hand, is an affirmation of the value of human life and a demonstration of God’s contentment with God’s People.
I’d like to suggest that you celebrate this Christmas by being content and joyful. Rather than fretting about whether you’ve given the perfect gifts to loved ones, be content with the value of your affection for those with whom you share this Christmas feast. Rather than risking disappointment over gifts you receive but judge to be unsatisfactory, be content with the giver’s act of generosity. If the meal you share at your Christmas dinner, or the guests around the table, fall short of your expectations, be content to be in the company of people whom you love and who love you.
This Christmas, follow the lead of the One who sent the Word into human flesh to be God-with-us: give the gift of contentment. To be content with family, friends, loved ones, and one’s own life is an experience of God-with-us; it is an encounter with the God who was pleased enough with God’s creatures to give the gift of the Incarnate Word. This Christmas, give the gift of contentment.