Yesterday, I heard a man say “Merry Christmas” and then apologize switching to “Happy New Year” instead. But he was really right the first time. We’ve entered Christmas “time,” and today is only the sixth day of a 12-day feast. During some seasons, Kelly and I have chosen to exchange a gift for each of the 12 days, helping remind us of the extended season of feasting.
Since I love getting presents this makes for a good tradition. While I realize that it is better to give than receive, I find it delightful to get…lots of presents. Presents and Christmas just go together. Some of my fondest memories from childhood include sitting under the Christmas tree and stacking up all the gifts that were labeled, “To Doug.”
During my early childhood, we’ve lived up in New Jersey. Every year we’d receive several large boxes from Tennessee, and each box was filled with presents from all our relatives.
What a delight I had to tear into the boxes, unpack the gifts and stack them under the tree. During the days leading up to Christmas, I’d sit by the tree and gather the “Doug” gifts, shaking, weighing and wondering upon the contents of each pretty package.
Sometimes I think I enjoyed the presents more before I opened them. The fancy papers, the colored bows, the odd shapes, and the varying weights all were a feast for my young imagination. Augustine’s idea that true happiness is found in anticipation of the good was being proved even in my childlike world of wonder.
In a way, this may be why Christmas sometimes seems like a letdown for some children and adults. The anticipation of the event is far more delightful than the actual experience. We discover like Augustine that the good we longed for is still ahead of us and not found in the mere gifts we exchanged.
As he reflected upon our longing for the “good,” Augustine came to believe that this good must be outside of us or we wouldn’t long for it. Then he assumed it must be something greater than what our outer world could supply. Because all our earthly goods never live up to the longing we have.
As he wrestled with this unfulfilled longing, Augustine came to see this greater good as something or someone that would fulfill the “desire” within us that drives us to long. And eventually Augustine came to realize that this “good” must be God, and that true happiness was found on earth in the anticipation of God who is beyond us.
For him, true earthly happiness was found in the longing for the “beautiful vision” of God. We merely touch hints of this vision in present life and will only enjoy the complete vision in the life to come. So even in the delight of a Christmas present, Augustine might see hints of God’s wondrous love.
I like that because my delight with Christmas presents might be seen as an act of spiritual devotion. Then again, it might be my unbridled selfish desires. And oddly enough, I suppose it is really a mixture of both. And God in his grace is working and transforming me in spite of my selfish motives.
But for now, let me go back to the presents! I have a question for you. What is the most memorable present you have ever received? I asked myself this several days ago, and oddly enough, it’s not an easy question to answer. All the presents blur together in my mind. Sweaters and pants and shirts and toys and boxes and bows all jumble together in one confusing mix.
So I’m not sure I can answer the question. After a few days of consideration, I have begun to remember the Bozo riding in the Bozo car that still sits in my house to this day. Then I remembered a Fisher Price circus set and a golf ball yo-yo and a train. Oops now the memories are flooding my mind: multiple race tracks, G.I. Joe dolls, magic tricks, a chemistry set, and a Tootsie Roll machine. Now I can’t stop. On and on I could go for pages listing trinkets and toys that delighted me for seasons of my childhood.
I failed to mention that the first gift which came to mind was a broken toy: a little car with broken wheels. I hated this gift but remember it more than any other gift. My sister and I were attending a youth choir Christmas party. We exchanged gifts using numbers we drew from a hat.
When I opened my little package, I was shocked to find a used and broken toy. Sad to say, I burst into tears. “Why me Lord?” “Why in heaven would someone have given me a broken toy?” As usual, my sister came to the rescue. She quickly pooled some money with another girl, and they ran down to the bookstore to buy me a puzzle.
I appreciated her kindness but somehow always felt a tinge of guilt playing with that puzzle. Why was I so sensitive and selfish over such a small thing? The memory stills haunts me on occasion.
I still wonder, “What is the story on that broken car?” Who thought bringing a broken car as a gift was a good idea? Were they too poor to buy something? If so, maybe this little broken car was actually a treasured gift, and they were giving me something of great value.” I’ll never know the story before it came to me, but I can tell you the story after I received it. Discarded. Trashed. But not forgotten.
Every gift is not simply a gift. It is actually a story in motion. It had a story before I got it and in one way or another it becomes part of my story once I receive it. For every gift that someone bought for me over the years, there was a moment or many moments of wondering, “What would Doug want?” Or possibly, “What can I get the best deal on?”
A whole series of thoughts might have occupied someone’s mind: “What size does he wear?” “What color does he like?” “Maybe I’ll just get him a goofy toy and call it a day.” For every gift someone bought for me, a thought or series of thoughts passed through their mind about me.
Now I realize something rather odd about the gift. It is actually an extension or symbol of the relationship I enjoy with that person. They took a few minutes to think about me and to find a gift for me because I am in relationship with them (even if that relationship consists in simply feeling some obligation to buy something).
Now this might seem odd, but I come to realize that gifts are but symbols for persons in my life. The wonder of gifts might not only point to some deep longing for the God, they might also point to the wonder of human relationships.
Looking around me at all the people in my life, I realize that I am surrounded by all shapes and sizes of gifts. Some talkative. Some quiet. Some big. Some tiny. Some friendly. Some a bit grumpy. And yet, in the mystery of God’s grace all these people are gifts of love and relationship God has granted me in this life: hints of His divine and all-surpassing love.
I can admire the packages. Or I can open up the gifts. How? I listen, enjoy, appreciate the wonder of the people around me. I can realize that each of these people have a story that extends far beyond me. But in some mysterious way I am part of their story and they are part of my story.
Every person in my life will change me and I will change them. I can celebrate them and thank God for them, or I can act like I got a bunch of broken toys. And ask, “Why me?”
I hope I’ve learned that even broken toys have mystery and wonder and stories that may unfold surprising hints of God’s goodness and grace.
As I celebrate the 12 days of Christmas this year, I am opening up gifts. Not physical boxes, but the amazing wonder of people in my life. From family and friends to the mystery of the stranger in the story, I am surrounded by gifts of wonder and glory. May I have eyes to see this wonder and sense the stirrings of a love from deep heaven that binds us together in grace.
“From a human perspective, when you compare [God] to the other gods of the other religions in the world, you have to say our God is really sort of odd. He uses the most common of people, people that aren’t any different from any of us here; he comes in the most common of ways, when by his Spirit an anonymous young woman is found to be with child. And the strangest thing is that he comes at all—he’s not the Above-Us-God, too holy to come down. This God’s love is so immense that he wants to come down. And he has proven his love by the fact that he did come down and touch our ground.”
James R. Van Tholen, Where All Hope Lies (cited from ChristianityToday.com)