Saturday, 5 December 2015

What can we give?

For most of us Christmas is about the giving and receiving of presents. It’s kind of mass consumerism gone mad. The worst excesses of which seem to form in that most hideous of American imports “Black Friday”, which is actually really linked to the American holiday of “Thanksgiving”. We have not taken that part on, just “Black Friday”, not the giving of thanks bit. Maybe we should and then extend it on into Christmas itself. Surely Christmas is about giving thanks for the gifts we have been given and expressing this thanks by using this gifts in our lives. In so doing we can become gifts to the world…Isn’t this what it means to live with gratitude?

I suspect that the tradition of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time is linked 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 mythos of Father Christmas, St Nicholas or 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? Is this really the spirit of Christmas?

I certainly do not think so. The spirit of Christmas is found I believe in those simple words from my favourite carol “In the Bleak mid-winter”…

“What shall I give him? Give my heart”

Gordon B Mckeeman once said “Christmas is not so much a matter of explanation and interpretation as it is a mood and a feeling. It is a time in the cycle of the year set apart by hope and fellowship and generosity. Christmas is the season of the heart.”

I agree with Gordon I believe that the true spirit of Christmas is the heart, that this is the gift of the season. Christmas above everything else truly is the season of the heart. When we truly give our gifts to others we are giving them our hearts and when we truly give from our heart to another we are somehow bringing that heart of God alive and that spirit is once again incarnating in life.

This is the religion, the spirit that can still be discovered beneath the ribbons and the wrapping paper. This is the spirit that can once again come alive if we engage in the giving and receiving of gifts and not merely presents. This is one way in which we can truly begin to become a gift to the world.

One thing that I believe is a worthwhile venture to do at this time of year is to think of and perhaps even make a list of the nicest gifts we have received. Not just Christmas gifts though, but also those we have received throughout our lives too. Now these could be actual presents, or they could be loving gestures or kindly acts. I will never forget a bowl of soup that Wynne Semester made for me when I was a completely broken man after Ethan had been killed some ten years ago now. She sat me down in the kitchen at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and just simply warmed up the soup and fed me while my heart broke. This simple act of love and countless others helped heal me in my utter despair; they helped to relight the fire of love and hope in me, in my darkest hour. I can name a 1001 or more times when others have done similar things. I have been and will continue to make a list of the many gifts I have been given throughout my life. This fills my heart with gratitude as I think of ways in which I can begin to give back what has been so freely given to me.

Why not give this a go. Spend some time in this Advent season compiling a list of all that has been given to you, freely, from the hearts of others and perhaps think of ways in which you too can give back from your heart. You never know, in so doing you may just be reigniting a fire that has gone out in someone’s heart.

Now please don’t take what I am saying the wrong way. I am not trying to coerce you here, to get you to behave in the right way, just so you will be rewarded. This is one of the few things I don’t really like about Christmas, the way that children are kind of coerced, dishonestly, into behaving themselves by the threat that if they don’t Father Christmas won’t come. It never works anyway. And why don’t I like it? Well because it’s not honest and besides which most children know for a long time that this is not the case, long before they will admit to it. I know I did. Although having said this I understand fully why parents use this tactic.

There is another problem too in using this method of coercion. Once we see the lie in this Christmas manipulation we equate all life in the same way. I think that one of the biggest problems when it comes to question re faith etc is that people equate God with Father Christmas. The God I have come to know is nothing like Father Christmas or anything else for that matter. God is not some kind of super being handing out favours or not willy nilly. God is no thing at all. God is beyond being.

When I really think of the gifts I have been given the greatest is of course life itself. This is of course the ultimate free gift. The ultimate unearned grace. As the beautiful hymn goes “Life is the greatest gift of all the riches on this earth; life and its creatures, great and small, of high and lowly birth. So treasure it and measure it with deeds of shining worth.”

Well truth be told I can’t claim to have always treasured and measured it with deeds of shining worth. I haven’t always been grateful for all that I have been freely given, beginning with life itself. How many of us can truly say that they have?

Now of course saying that we are grateful is easy. We can all say that we are grateful for the gifts we have been given, whether at Christmas or throughout the year; whether these gifts are material or spiritual in nature. But I am not so sure that this is what gratitude actually is. To quote David Whyte:

“Gratitude is not a passive response to something given to us, gratitude is being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not something that is shown after the event, it is the deep, a priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life. Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is privilege, that we are part of something, rather than nothing…Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative means we are simply not paying attention.”

This is really what I would like you to think about over the next of weeks as we approach Christmas. To consider the gifts that we have been granted and to perhaps think of the gifts we would like. To remember, but not passively, let’s instead make it an act of remembrance, of all that has been freely given to us, gifted to us. Let’s also make from these gifts a true act of gratitude for all that is our lives. Let’s become a part of the gift that is life itself and express this in our being. Let’s become the gift to the world. And pour out this gift on one another and to all life, in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do…


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