Here in the U.S. we experience an odd phenomenon every year. The day after Thanksgiving retail stores offer some hefty discounts on items, and folks rush to those stores in the wee hours of the morning to get all their Christmas shopping done at once. The rush can be so intense that some folks are injured and others have been killed, just so that we can save a few bucks on a gift that will most likely be set aside in a matter of a few hours.
Many Christians sit by and shake their heads, condemning the greed that they see; and rightly so. No material thing is worth putting another person's life at risk to obtain. But it has become almost stylish to condemn the "materialism" of Christmas. Today, however, I would like to propose an alternative to both the "materialistic" attitude towards Christmas, and to those who silently (or not so silently) condemn such an attitude.
I would like to put forward to you that Christmas, and particularly our giving at Christmas, is about God's generosity towards us. In His deep love for us, He gave us everything. And after giving us everything, He poured Himself out for us "emptying Himself and taking on the form of a servant." You see, we often get so caught up in giving at Christmas that we forget why we give and Who we are imitating.
This was first brought to my attention while reading one of the books by Archbishop Joseph Raya. I can't remember if it was his book on Christmas or his book on the Incarnation, but in the book Sayedna Raya encourages us to continue to give generously at Christmas, and not to cease giving, because our giving is a reflection of the Gift that God has given us on this Holiday. Our giving is a reflection of God's generosity towards us. Since we are made in God's image and likeness, our very nature demands that we reflect God's generosity. And so this time of year more than any other, we feel the urge to pour ourselves out to those we love through gifts in imitation of the One in Whose image we are created.
I'm not, of course, encouraging anyone to abandon themselves to reckless materialism during this time of year. We can take things too far and we must respect one another. But what we need to do is stand back and reflect on why we are giving (and why we are receiving as well). From the second prayer of Safro this morning we read:
from your rich treasure you have enriched our poverty."
And we continue to pray that Christ enrich us by filling our hearts with veneration and respect; our souls with faith and love; our minds with spiritual thoughts; our lips with praise and glory; and our lives with good works. Enrichment, filling, abundance, these are the words the speak to us of God's generosity and humility in willing "to submit Himself to the law of human nature," as we pray in the third prayer of Safro this morning.
I think that very often we ignore or forget this great outpouring of God, His magnificent generosity. We think of this outpouring more in terms of His having created us. We think also of His death on the Cross, but I believe we often ignore the immense outpouring of the Incarnation - an outpouring without which the Cross is both impossible and meaningless. But our Liturgies are full of references to this outpouring.
The Proemion of Ramsho says:
"The cherubim fear Him when they bear Him on the fiery chariot
but in His love He concealed Himself within the pure womb of Mary."
And the Sedro of Ramsho reads:
"You are the King of kings who crowns princes and saves His people.
You raised our human nature to the throne of your glory
when you descended from that throne,
took the condition of a slave and truly became man."
And from Safro the Proemion says:
"Praise, glory and honor to the true God
whose Spirit one cannot fathom and upon whose face one cannot gaze."
And yet have we ever stopped to think that through the Incarnation we have been given the great gift to gaze upon the face of God! That is one of the reasons that we can paint icons of Christ. God has taken on flesh and we have seen His face. That is also one of the reasons that the Shroud of Turin is such an amazing gift to mankind. The face of Christ is preserved there! Do we dare to gaze into the very Face of generosity and self-gift?
The Sedro of Safro reads:
"You, Who dwell in the heights and are served by Seraphim and glorified by the Cherubim,
descended from your heavens and came to us.
And finally we pray in the Mazmooro of Saphro:
"The One Whom the Seraphim serve and dare not gaze upon the splendor of His face,
descended into the womb of the pure Virgin
and entered the house of His Forerunner."
Have we stopped to contemplate this generosity? Have we sought to imitate it? Do we embrace this self-emptying attitude towards our giving at Christmas in imitation of the Divine Gift that is being given to us (not has been, but is being given because this Gift is eternal)? Or do we simply sit there and sneer at those "materialistic" folks who simply use Christmas as an excuse to go on shopping sprees? Are we a light to the world as Christ is our Light, or do we hide that light while sitting at home content with our own self-righteousness?
"From on high our Savior came, the Rising Sun who shone from the East, to visit us in His great mercy, we who sat in darkness and gloom. But now we see the Light of Truth, for the Lord Jesus is born of a pure Virgin Mother." (Exapostilarion of the Nativity [Byzantine])
I don't want to make this out as though giving gifts is the only, or even primary, form of generosity that we are to practice particular during this time of year. Christ is "Emmanuel," God-With-Us! Similarly this time of year we gather to be with our families and loved ones. To show them that even when we are physically absent from them, they are in our hearts and we are with them in spirit.
So as we continue to prepare ourselves for the feast of the Nativity of Christ, I think it is important that we keep all of this in mind. We are celebrating God's generosity towards us. The all-powerful One, Whom the Seraphim dare not gaze upon and Who is borne aloft by the Cherubim, emptied Himself and poured His richness upon us. He has allowed us to gaze on His face, to look into His eyes. By taking on our nature He has seated us, the lowest of His creatures, on His very throne. In celebrating God's generosity, we seek to imitate that generosity; to pour ourselves out for our loved ones and to elevate them above ourselves. To set aside our cares, desires and needs for the moment and place those of others before us. Enjoy the giving. Enjoy the receiving. Do all in love for and imitation of Christ. May heaven consume us!