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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Grace of Giving and Receiving

Le Nain, Nativity with a Torch, 1600s
Christmas – the season for giving and receiving gifts. In the Child of Bethlehem we receive the self-giving love of God. And we are reminded that we are at our best when we give generously and receive gratefully.

So, if Christmas is about what is humanly truest and best, why all this giving and receiving cause us such stress? In our hearts, we know that Christmas in 2016 has a lot less to do with Jesus and a lot more to do with the insatiable demands of a consumer-driven economy. Christmas shopping can become a form of seasonal affective disorder, and when all is said and done we realize that no matter how much we
give or how much we are given, it doesn’t necessarily make us any happier.

Pondering these questions confronts us with all the twists and turns of our disordered hearts. We’re faced with what the fact that, in the words of St. Paul, “the good we would do we cannot do, and the wrong that we seek to avoid is the very thing that we do.”

We’re taught to receive gratefully, yet our receiving can be tainted with a sense of entitlement or resentment. We start to feel that we receive good things because we deserve them. Or, resentful that we don’t receive more than those who are less deserving than we are.

I’ve just finished a book entitled Strangers in Their Own Land by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.  A well known academic, Hochschild left her ivory tower in Berkeley, California and spent five years getting to know members of the arch-conservative Tea Party movement
in Louisiana. She wanted to overcome the “empathy wall” that increasingly divides and isolates Americans from those who think differently than they do.

Hochschild found her “Tea Party friends” (as she calls them) individually warm, engaging, generous and kind. But she also found that they habored a deep-seated resentment against people they thought had been given unfair advantages. In the quest for the “American dream,” less deserving people were unfairly jumping the queue ahead of hard-working people like themselves. “Line jumpers” include immigrants, Syrian refugees, welfare recipients, pampered government employees, affirmative action beneficiaries, the inner city poor. This belief, Hochschild discovered, explains the extraordinary hostility of the right to Barack Obama.  After all, (the reasoning goes) the only way that a mixed race child of a low-income single mother could have risen to the Presidency is if he were given unfair hand up, not available to ordinary (white) working people.

But before we rush to judge this attitude, let’s remember that the Baby of Bethlehem reveals the secret recesses of all our hearts. He compels us to look at the ways in which we too sometimes feel entitled and resentful of others who aren’t as “deserving” as we are. It’s an impulse that is within us all.

Likewise, our giving can come with a lot of strings attached. Generosity can be a means of wielding power over others by making them beholden to us. We condescend to those “less fortunate” in order to make ourselves feel virtuous and superior. Many Christian “good works” are more than a little marked by this self-congratulatory attitude.

At Christmas, we are invited to ponder the mystery of the Baby of Bethlehem and what his coming means for us. One of the central themes of Christmas is light. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

That light of the Christ Child is warm and comforting, but it is also searching and painfully bright because, if we have eyes to see, it will make us face up to the truth about ourselves – that even our best-intentioned actions can conceal selfish motives that cause hurt to others, whether or not we’re aware of it. The angels sang about the arrival of “Peace on earth, good will to all,” but their song seems to be mocked by the inability of fallible human beings to actually live it out.

The Bible has a word for this human-all-too-human reality, a word that is widely misunderstood and pretty much out of fashion. The English word is “sin.” Sin is not breaking the rules or feeling badly about ourselves. Sin is the universal human impulse to misuse the good things we have been given.  The consequence is alienation from God, and, as a consequence, from others and from our own true selves. G. K. Chesterton once quipped that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. Our thoughts and deeds are permeated by it every day.

Therefore, our attitude at Christmas should first of all be one of humility and poverty of heart. We need help – the help that only one who comes to us from God can bring. We need to receive before we can hope to give – receive the grace that is a free, no-strings-attached gift from beyond ourselves. If our hearts are going to be purified and our actions made right, we can’t rely only on ourselves. We need help.

What keeps this from being a depressing guilt trip is the wonderful mystery of grace. God comes to us in love, not to condemn us, but to empower us to do what we seem to be incapable of doing on our own. God does this by showing us the true Way to life, but also by freeing us from paralyzing guilt and shame. God shows us the way. But God enables us to walk the way through forgiveness and the assurance that we are never beyond hope or redemption.

When the Baby of Bethlehem grew up, he said, “The truth shall set you free.” In other words, we don’t need to be afraid of the truth because it does not condemn us, it frees us. That includes the truth about ourselves. Jesus came to tell us the love and grace of God are always stronger than whatever we have done or failed to do.

Detail from "Joseph the
Carpenter" by Georges de
la Tour, ca 1645
Martin Luther famously said, “Sin boldly.” By that, I think he meant, don’t be under any illusion that your motives and actions will ever be entirely sinless and pure. But don’t be paralyzed by the fear that you will get it wrong either, because it’s unavoidable. Instead, act according to your faith, and trust in the grace and mercy of God to redeem even your mistakes.

Jesus is more and more receding from public view at Christmas. Jesus even seems strangely absent from many of our churches. There seems to be an attitude that the less we’re about Jesus, the more people will be interested in us. But the one thing the Christian Church still has that people can’t get anywhere else is the message of the Christ Child. This message tells us the often painful truth about ourselves, but more importantly, the truth about the God of healing and salvation and grace. If we Christians have anything at all to offer to a hurting world, surely it is that message, in word and in deed.

If anything, we need to double down on our proclamation of Jesus, not retreat from it. It’s the gift we have been given that we are invited to give to others in such a way that it communicates the freedom and life that are God’s desire for us.

May you have a blessed and holy Christmas and a happy and grace-filled New Year.