Every December my wife and I try to give each other a Christmas ornament that in some way reflects the year we’ve had, or at least something iconic as far as the last 365 days are concerned. Her choices are always much more creative and thoughtful than mine. I have received an ornament of a car driving across Canada (for the year we moved back from British Columbia), an Egg McMuffin (deeply meaningful, mostly delicious), an owl with glasses reading a tiny copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord (vol. 7!), even a Russian-Alaskan icon ornament (which I can now definitively identify as a hodegitria). In short, she makes me Christmas ornaments that reflect things we love and have experienced together, from the West Coast to navigating graduate studies to Eastern Orthodoxy. In return, last year my attempt at a personalized ornament for her was a large plush doll of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz as a zombie.
Clearly I am not a great gift-giver. It’s something I’m working on. I appreciate the care and thought that go into a great gift; I’m just mostly unable to reproduce that same kind of thoughtful creativity. To give another example among many, a few years back I wanted to thank Andrea for helping me with a large art project – she had expended tremendous amounts of time and energy helping me make the project come together. And so I bought her… a garishly coloured thrift-store portrait of the Virgin Mary, and a pair of tickets to see Rod Stewart. No card, no wrapping – what was I thinking? Apart from the time I bought someone a $10 Sears gift certificate for their 16th birthday, this was the worst present I have ever purchased. (Even worse, it actually seemed like a good idea at the time.)
Christmas is about the giving of gifts. I say that not because I’m trying to bolster a flagging global economy, but because it really is part of the DNA of the season.
For some reason, this December I keep thinking of a cheesy song by ’80s/early ’90s Christian pop icon Sandi Patty (in my family growing up, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, and Steve Green formed a sort of trifecta of Adult Contemporary Christian Music). It’s no Bach cantata, but it sure is catchy:
And the gift goes on (The Father gave the Son)
And the gift goes on (The Son gave the Spirit)
And the gift goes on (The Spirit gives us life)
So we can give the gift of love
There you go – a robust Trinitarian theology based on “gift” that even follows the Western filioque, set to a twinkling pop melody. St. Augustine would be proud. The rest of the song is a little suspect (“Don’t you love to get a present / Wrapped up in a Christmas bow / God gave each of us a present / On that night so long ago”) but even so, there’s some truth here; “gift” and “giving” (and supremely, “self-giving”) are fundamental to the nature of the triune God. The Father freely gives the Son to the world, the very event we commemorate each December; the Son gives the Paraclete, the “Giver of Life”; and we in turn give back praise – through Christ, in the power of the Spirit – to the Father. In our inclusion in the ceaseless perichoresis of the Trinity, we too participate in this movement of continual divine giving, a movement both upwards and outwards, expressing love to the creator and to the world. The “gift” of the incarnate Son at Christmas is not a one-off deal, but part of a much bigger divine action – creation, redemption, eschaton, theosis – with roots in the eternal generosity of the Trinity itself.
[Don’t even get me started on Christus Victor soteriology in Steve Green songs.]
I may not be a particularly good giver – as I said, I’m working on it. But the Triune God is by nature an abundant, joyous Giver. I don’t know what this means in everyone’s particular context this Christmas… I’ve just been reminded this season to learn to receive God’s good gifts graciously, to live each day as if it was “given,” and of course to try to grow as a giver myself. Although the emphasis might have to fall on learning how to receive – God is notoriously hard to shop for.