Linda and I recently watched an Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” episode set in Manilla. We learned that the Christmas season in the Philippines begins in September with songs and many parties. The whole society enjoys a three month time to get away from seriousness and to share in the joy of recognizing someone and telling them, through a gift, that they belong. Then comes the arrival of gift boxes from the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who work overseas separated from their families. It’s hard to get a box to arrive a week or two before Christmas when you send it from abroad. Plus, when you see your children or other loved ones only once every year or two you tend to over-buy out of an understandable feeling of sadness at the separation.
Filipino culture exhibits a different attitude toward gift giving than is typically found in the United States. Their attitude toward gift giving emphasizes a gift as a means to make an occasion special and to show everyone they are included. Especially under the influence of advertising, our gift giving tends to try to reveal how special we are. We give gifts to show that we understand you, the recipient, perfectly, and thus found the perfect gift. Or in the church we hope our giving demonstrates that we are generous and kind to those in need.
How might Christ’s birth shed a new light?
The Christmas story tells of the three Wise Men bringing baby Jesus gifts to his birth bed in the stable: gold, frankincense and myrrh. These fancy gifts were meant to show all that the newborn babe born to such poor parents in
Anthony Bourdain at a Christmas party in Manilla such “mean estate” was to be, in reality, a king. Then I think of the poet Christina Rosetti’s beautiful lyrics in the hymn In the Bleak Midwinter: “If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb… yet what I can I give him, give him my heart.” The Christ child elicited a response not so much of self-sacrifice but of awe. In him we see the holy.
Often we give gifts to show who we are. Other, non-Western cultures can show us the joy of giving gifts to include others. But the Christmas story spurs us to make our gifts point to the holy acts of God among us.
I don’t think this means presents should become “churchy.” But we might want our gifts to capture what seems especially alive with the Spirit of Christ to us today. Are you “coming alive” in a new way? Share that. Do you have a new hope for the world? Tell people! Was there a wonderful experience this past year? Send me a picture. In every case God continues to bring us joy. This Christmas may you recognize anew that you have already received the greatest gift
of all: the gift of the birth of Christ, God-with- us.
– Faithfully and joyfully, Pastor Noel