We all know the feeling. A friend drops in, maybe an acquaintance, a neighbor. Someone we don't know that well, someone that we certainly didn't put on our Christmas list. Goodness, we didn't even send them a card. And here they are at our door with a beautiful platter of assorted homemade cookies. Or a lovely ornament tied with a ribbon. Or some other thoughtful, beautiful, perfect gift. And we stand there, eyes wide, arms spread, speechless. Because we don't have a gift in return. Maybe we scurry into the back of the house and wrap something up. But the feeling is still there: discomfort, embarrassment, indebtedness. Powerlessness. It is awkward to be the receiver of a gift. And from now on we might avoid that person's street when we're out on a walk, or at least until we've come up with some equally lovely gift to give in return.
So here we are in the Christmas season. The "season of giving," as we've coined it. But really, is this the season of giving? We certainly love to give. Why? Because it makes us feel good. It puts us in control. It gives us a pat on the back, helps those in need, seems to be a win-win. But the truth in the underbelly of all of this is that it is excruciatingly difficult to be the recipient of a gift-- especially a wonderful unmerited gift. Which is exactly what the Christmas story-- that story set in a stable in Bethlehem-- is all about. Receiving an unmerited gift.
William Willimon writes,
"The Christmas story implies that what God wants to do for us is so strange, so beyond the bounds of human effort and striving, that God must resort to utterly unnatural, supernatural means. It tells of an unimaginable gift from a stranger, a God whom we hardly even knew. This strange story tells us how to be receivers."
In the Christmas story, we are receivers before we are givers. In our best efforts we have managed to get it all wrong, because the true Christmas spirit is not about giving. It is about receiving this stranger, this acquaintance whom we hardly even know, bearing lavish gifts of grace and unmerited love, with open arms, humility, and welcome.