The wise men started it all, some say. Still, I like the way the Magi gave their gifts, for they presumably returned “to the East” without expecting Mary and Joseph to give them anything in return.
Their gifts were meant for the baby Jesus, but there seemed to be no baby-shower obligation in their giving. We never read that Luke wrote down the value of their gifts or entered them in the log of people to be thanked later. And we never hear that the kings were back home, feeling bad that no one ever came “from the West” to bring them presents.
Gifts are more blessed to give than to get, says the cliché. But gifts are seldom given so freely that they don’t result in some bondage.
Often at Christmas, gifts become a subtle power play resulting in obligation. Such gifts may subtly say “While my gift appears free, repay me in kind,” or “Enjoy this, Joe, but you owe me one now.”
A simple gift from a neighbor may say, “Just remember my generosity the next time I need to borrow your lawn mower. The milkman’s gift may say “I really need to keep your business, so don’t buy any eggnog from the Borden’s man this year even though ours costs just a tad more.”
There are, in essence, only three kinds of gifts that one can give at Christmas: the gift-for-gift, the tit-for-tat gift, and the genuine grace gift.
A gift-for-gift present is one that’s carefully measured against what the giver expects to receive in return. A gift-for-gift giver always keeps mental track: Now let’s see. The gift I’m giving cost me $13.95. I wonder what I’ll get in return?
This approach feeds cash registers all through December. It prompts the last-minute, Christmas Eve dash to the store to be sure some unexpected gift gets repaid in full.
This syndrome also generates all those late Christmas cards. Some remote acquaintance surprises us on December 23rd with a card that we can’t possibly respond to until after Christmas.
The tit-for-tat gift isn’t motivated by a desire to receive a material gift in return. But the giver expects his present to smooth out some of the bumps of life. Such givers operate primarily in the arena of favors and obligation.
At Christmas, bosses often lavish employees with gifts: liquor or expensive cheese-and-fruit wheels. They certainly don’t expect their employees to repay in kind, but they do expect less back talk in the office, at least through March. Their gift says, “Don’t forget what I did for you in December, Buddy-Boy!”
The best gift to give or receive is what I call the grace gift. I’ve picked this name because these gifts remind me of the lavish ways that I have received the love of God.
Biblical grace, by definition, is a gift so immense, it is unrepayable. When you give or receive a grace gift, you are suddenly in the presence of something too immense to be repaid.
When he was only 10, my son Timothy knew my penchant for collecting Don Quixotes of every size and shape. He and his 11-year-old sister were shopping when they found a huge unpainted Don Quixote in a plaster shop at an amazingly affordable price. He bought it and lugged it all through the mall.
He wrapped it as well as he could and put it under the tree. In a separate little package, he wrapped the paint and brushes. On Christmas morning, he opened the package and gave it to me. I was delighted.
For the next two or three days, Timothy painted the monstrous statuette of Don Quixote charging into life astride his cart horse steed. As long as I live, I will never forget that wondrous Christmas morning. His art project still stands on our hearth.
The uniqueness of his gift – and all grace gifts – indicates that the giver knows you very well and has put much thought and heart into the giving. You know when you are giving a grace gift, because your heart is saying, “Here I meet you at the place I know you best. You yourself are your gift to me. Nothing else is needed.
Giving With Grace
Let me suggest two ways to give a grace gift.
First, be sure it’s impossible to measure the cost of your gift. My daughter’s Italian mother-in-law has taught her to cook authentic Italian foods. So when my daughter wants to please me most, she fills a bowl with meatballs swimming in her marvelous marinara sauce, and I am content through long winters. When the snow flies, one of her warm Italian sausage sandwiches says, “Dad, you are so special to me.”
Her love produces warm grace gifts from her pantry to which I could never attach a price tag. I know it cost her something to make these dishes, but their real value is the way they show she loves and understands me.
Second, realize that non-material gifts are the best way to say, “Don’t try to pay me back.” There are three types of non-material gifts.
One is what I like to call the koinonia or “togetherness” gift. Four years ago, my son was in the Green Berets and didn’t have the money to come home for Christmas. My wife and I could scrape together his air fare only if we didn’t buy each other material gifts. In the end, we decided our son’s airplane ticket was the grandest gift we could give. His fellowship was our present to each other.
Second is the leitourgia or “service” gift. One of our young pastors who has a large family wanted to give us a Christmas gift. While we were away, he came to our house and spent several hours polishing all our shoes. December is a busy month and shoes get scruffy from lack of attention. He had given us a real “foot-washing” kind of gift.
The third and most wondrous grace gift falls under the category of “spiritual gifts.”
One friend promised to pray for me all through the Christmas season. Another friend who knows I am fond of Shakespeare gave me a book of Shakespearean quotes from his personal library. Still another friend loaned me his favorite Christmas CD for two weeks.
All of these gifts came with the assurance that Christ had prompted the gift and that it was given through Christ on the basis of our friendship. It was marvelous to see the Savior so involved in gifts that were not purchased, but given in the highest name of friendship.
I have most enjoyed giving spiritual gifts at Christmas. One of our older church members is like a mother to me. I could give her a material gift, or I could give her what she really enjoys. I take her to dinner, then we go back to her apartment and sit and talk and share in Scripture and prayer. No ribbons are taken from any package, but it is the greatest gift I could give her.
Just the other day, my daughter said, “Dad, let’s not give each other presents this year. Let’s just eat together as often as we can throughout December. I want to make December the month of our togetherness and the season when we hold the treasure of each other and not mere material things.”
I knew what she meant. So we are committed this year. These December days will be grace gifts. They cannot be paid back, for they are one-time offerings from four people who understand and need one other.
Did the wise men’s lavish gifts expect repayment? I think not. They gave and left Bethlehem with a glow in their hearts. Mary and Joseph understood: The gift was theirs.
I cannot say what was in the hearts of the Magi as they made their way back across the desert, but I think their sentiment must have been what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”
Calvin Miller, Moody