Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Gift is in the Giving when we Give our Hearts

“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what can I give him: give my heart.”

Christina Rossetti

I like most people I love singing carols, well if truth be told I pretty much love singing anything. "My life goes on in endless song, how can I keep from singing?" “In the Bleak Midwinter” may well be my favourite carol. Yes I know it is not the jolliest, but I suspect it is the most beautiful. It is certainly the one that touches me the deepest, in the roots of my soul. It is the final line that has always tugged at my heart strings. The words “Yet what can I give him: give my heart.” This to me is the message of the whole Christmas story; this is the message of the universal Christmas “mythos”. This is the religious message of Christmas and the message that the life of Jesus brought to humanity and it is a message that can still reach we who live in the materially obsessed 21st century. So what is it that we should be giving? Well I beleive that we should be giving our hearts. We should be giving ourselves wholeheartedly to one another.

The Carol brings to mind the following story of "Poinsettia" told by my old minister 
John Midgely.

"In recent years a plant, the Poinsettia, has become a new symbol of Advent, because of its joyous red colour and the story associated with it.

It originates from Mexico where the associated legend is a miracle story, told to the children as part of the Festival of the Holy Journey, a re-enactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. It comes to its climax when the couple arrive in Bethlehem and find no room at the inn. For the Christmas Eve service the people of the towns and villages attend their church and bring gifts for the Christ child, as the three Wise Men did.

The story tells of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who wanted to attend but had no gift to bring. As she walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. “I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes,’ said Pedro to her, consolingly. Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggy bunch, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel. All this was made worse by the jeering remarks of those who had bought much grander gifts.

As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro’s kind words: “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.

Suddenly the leaves of the bouquet of weeds changed. They were transformed into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle, right before their eyes. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

'Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable.'"

“Even the most humble gift if given in love will be acceptable," or as we often hear, this time of year, “It’s the thought that counts”. After all isn’t the giving of gifts symbolic of the expression of love. It is not really about the gift at all, but the love expressed in selecting and then giving the present. There is real religion to be found in those ribbons and wrapping paper.

Whenever I hear the phrase “It’s the thought that counts” I always think of my brother and the time he was a poor music student in the late 1980’s. He was studying in Leeds and would often walk from Headingley to Birstall some eleven miles, because he couldn’t afford the bus fare home. Well one Christmas he was so poor that he couldn’t really afford presents for anyone and so he bought the family a joint present of both The Christmas Radio and TV Times, bumper double editions of course! As you can imagine he has suffered from years of stick for this. I also remember him one year beautifully wrapping a gift for our step brother Alan’s two boys. They opened it with a great deal of excitement to reveal a raw potato inside. One of the boys looked most disappointed while the other leapt about in excitement and said “Yes we can have chips”. Yes it definitely is the thought that counts. The two boys who are now fully grown men remember the gift very well and were joking about it at a recent family wedding.

So if it’s the thought that counts, why do we give presents, however humble, at Christmas? Well it obviously dates back to the three gifts of the Magi “Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh”. Gifts of great value 2,000 years ago, although only gold has retained its worth today. Now in early Christianity the journey of the Magi was celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, the 12th day of Christmas, hence the Carol “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree” etc...

The early Christian church did not celebrate Christmas as we do today. The tradition of giving Christmas presents is really a modern one. By Victorian times the culture of gift giving and the myth of Santa Claus was beginning to take hold, immortalised in the fiction of Dickens and the like. As the twentieth century moved on into the twenty first this culture developed into mass consumerism. Today it would seem that buying, wrapping and giving gifts has become nothing more than a mechanical chore and one of the worst examples of mass consumerism going. Is this really what Christmas is about? Is this really giving by heart?

“What shall I give him? Give my heart” or if you prefer   “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable”

Perhaps these are thoughts that we ought to be thinking about as we continue our Christmas shopping. I will certainly be doing so as I begin mine. I will bring my heart into the experience. I will practise not making it a chore, but an expression of the love I feel and know for those I am buying gifts for. I will try not to rush the experience. I will attempt to make space as I purchase the gifts. I will attempt to increase my sensitivity to the experience instead of just trying to get it out of the way. How many of us just rush through the whole season instead of absorbing the love, the religion that this gift giving expresses?

Christmas can only be experienced, enjoyed, if we slow down and really feel and watch the love that is at the core of it. Now some would see this as a luxury as wasting time, but is it? As David H Cole points out “Antoine De Saint-Expury wrote in ‘The Little Prince’: ‘It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important’” He extends this to Christmas time claiming it’s really important to ‘waste’ time at Christmas. What he is saying is how important it is that we slow down in this season of Advent and pay attention to what we are doing to see the love expressed in the time we ‘waste’ thinking about the gifts we buy and wrap, or the scarves we knit and cakes we bake. By paying attention to these activities we give our hearts, remembering always that “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable”

Of course if we give from our hearts, if we buy, wrap and offer our gifts in love we will receive exactly what it is our hearts desire. For it truly is in giving that we receive. This is where the Christmas magic incarnates in our very lives. When we give with our hearts to and for others we truly receive all that we could have ever wished for.

The Christmas “Mythos” is that of perfect love incarnating in human form. That love can manifest itself today in our hearts and lives. We all have the capacity for great good, if we would but feed the good wolf within each of us. It is surely here that the hope for the whole of humanity lies. If we feed the loving wolf within ourselves then the wolf of hate and fear dies off. If we do we have already begun to spread love and we have begun to bring joy to the world.

There is so much that is wrong with our world. Watching the news each night highlights this, so much destruction, so little love. There is so much that mocks those bells at Christmas time and there does indeed seem to be a deficit of “peace on earth and good will to all.” I do not believe that it has to be like that. We can incarnate that love in our lives and we can begin to spread it out into our world. We can create tidal waves of compassion, that can swamp the whole of the earth.

So how do we achieve this? Well it begins as we pay attention to the love that we feel for those that we buy or make our gifts for, it continues as we take time to wrap those gifts and really comes to life as we give them to those we love and experience that moment of magic as they open is in those moments that we come to know that the gift truly is in the giving.

“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what can I give him: give my heart.”

And if you do it is you who will receive in abundance

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