Advent 2022 — December 23

16 For in this way God loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world in order that he should judge the world, but in order that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not judged, but the one who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who practices evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, in order that his deeds may be revealed, that they are done in God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God sent his one and only Son into the world in order that we may live through him. 10 In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

“The Wondrous Gift”[1]
by Elisabeth Elliot

It was not to the throne room of a king, where he would have been received in solemn majesty, that he came that night. It was not to the banqueting hall of a governor with its flickering torches, its loaded tables, and its throng of revelers, nor to the packed inn where frantic serving maids ran in and out, answering the surly cries of hungry travelers. It was to starlit fields, where in silence broken only by the soft sounds of sleeping sheep the shepherds were doing what they were supposed to be doing, that he came—the angel of the Lord, in the terrifying glory of the Lord, bringing with him the good news of a great joy for all people, even for them, the shepherds.

We are told that they went as fast as they could to Bethlehem to see what had happened. They found the Savior of the world with Mary and Joseph, though how they found him we are not told, nor how they recognized him as Christ the Lord there in the dark cave, in the animals’ manger. We are told that they reported what the angel had said to them and then went back to their fields. That is all that we know they did, but we imagine more. We see them kneeling in the straw, offering to the baby their worship and, perhaps, some simple gift. We imagine everyone who came kneeling down in adoration, humble and glad in the steamy darkness, laying before the Child some present. A twelfth-century Christian pictured even the animals bringing their gifts:

I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown,
I carried His mother uphill and down.
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town.
I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown.
I, said the cow, all white and red,
I gave Him my manger for a bed.
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.
I, said the cow, all white and red.
I, said the sheep, with curly horn,
I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm.
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.
I, said the sheep, with curly horn.
So every beast, by some good spell,
In the stable rude was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

We cannot imagine adoration without gift-giving, and at Christmas we have the opportunity, by wise and honored custom, of expressing appreciation and love to others by making them presents.

We offer to God our thanksgiving for his “unspeakable gift,” that little child at whose birth angels sang, a human being, coming into the human scene for the sake of humans—all of us, the shepherds, the mysterious sages from the East, godly Jews who had looked all their lives long for the Messiah, all the rest of the teeming world. “Joy which shall be to all people.” We think of that gift, and we thank him.

We think of God’s other gifts and most of us wonder, at Christmas time, what gift we may give to him beyond our thanksgiving. Money, time, talent, possessions? We check them off impatiently. “I do tithe, I give my time, I share what I have.” Or perhaps we check off the list with diffidence, asking, “Of what use will that be for God?”

Yet we know that all we have is given to us by God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of Lights.” So we give him back a portion of what was always his, trusting him to accept it and make use of it in his own way. It is not beyond our powers to imagine God’s making of our time, money, talents, and possessions instruments of good in the world.

But there is one other thing we may offer, something that seems perhaps much more our own, of much less “use” to the world at large, and a paltry present at best, one we are sometimes hesitant to surrender. Christina Rosetti’s lovely carol reminds us of it:

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.
What can I give Him—give my heart.

How am I to do this? Some measure of trust and commitment is involved in the giving of any gift. The child proffers the crushed dandelion to his mother, sure that she can be trusted to be pleased with it and—what matters far more to him—to receive him. It is not to obtain the mother’s love that the child gives her the flower, but because he knows he has already obtained it. To lay my heart before Christ the Lord would be unthinkable without the same confidence felt by the child—the assurance of acceptance, not that I may hope to receive grace but that grace has already been poured upon me. In all my giving I only appropriate God’s supreme gift.

I bring, then, my heart—all my heart—an unopened parcel. No one else knows what it contains, but I myself know there is nothing there of gold, frankincense, or myrrh. There is nothing in the parcel except the panic, the fear, the chaos of whatever storm buffets me now, and, like the disciples in a storm-tossed boat, I find, to my amazement, that I am given something in return—peace, the peace of God that passes understanding.

I bring, like the five thousand long ago, my hunger, and like them I am fed.

I bring the darkness of my heart, even that worst darkness which prefers darkness, and, simply because I have brought it, the Light that no darkness can comprehend shines in.

It may be that the heart I have to offer is a broken one. If so, I bring a broken heart. And somehow, after a time, I receive healing.

I bring whatever there may be of ashes, mourning, the spirit of heaviness, and I go away with beauty, with the oil of joy, with the garment of praise.

The story is told of a hermit who, having suffered the loss of all things in his renunciation of the world, yet found no peace. It seemed to him in his lonely cell that the Lord was asking something more.

“But I have given you everything!” cried the hermit.

“All but one thing,” answered the Lord.

“What is it, Lord?”

“Your sins.”

Like the hermit, I bring also my sins, for they, too, are contained in the parcel. And I receive in exchange forgiveness.

It is a tremendous mystery—out of this darkness, this song; out of this chaos, this peace, Christ giving to us himself. And we, in mysterious exchange for the crushed dandelion that would have been of no use to anyone at all, are granted precious things that, even more inexplicably, we may give in turn to other people. We may participate, through this transformation, in the work of the Prince of Peace in the world, giving away joy and peace, things listed in no Christmas catalogue. It may well be that some of the gifts we had sighed over in the catalogue were withheld precisely in order that we might receive instead priceless ones for the sake of others, gifts whose sharing, far from impoverishing, enriches the giver.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, yet in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Christ enters in.

[1] Elisabeth Elliot, “The Wondrous Gift,” in A Light Has Dawned: Meditations on Advent and Christmas, Best of Christianity Today (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 224–230.

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