By Joseph Sunde
Throughout the Christmas season, we are routinely reminded of our “gift nature,” whether through the transfer of presents, the confluence of family gatherings, the creative flurry of plays and performances, or, most importantly, the central story of the One who gives it all meaning in the first place.
Christmas is the story of the ultimate gift and gift-giver. As we embrace and receive and celebrate what that all means, we should be careful to remember that the corresponding Christmas traditions are not merely symbolic or celebratory of a reality in ages past.
The divine generosity bound up in the Christmas story represents an active renewal we were meant to participate in — day after day, year after year. As Alexander Schmemann reminds us, God sent his son “not as a rescue operation, to recover lost man,” but “rather for the completing of what He had undertaken from the beginning. God acted so that man might understand who He really was and where his hunger had been driving him.”
As Evan Koons puts it in For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, we were originally created to be gift-givers, “crafted in God’s own image, with his own breath, crowned with glory and honor.” And “in that same abundance, he blessed us, and he said go, explore my world. Unwrap the gift of my creation. Bless the world with your own gifts.”
Sin interrupted that story and purpose. But not for long:
Then there came that day when God gave us another gift. God himself becomes a man, and the gift he offers to the Father is himself, and all of creation is in tow behind him. Once and for all he restores the way of our purpose. He restores our priesthood.
We can once again offer to God our lives, our work, our knowledge — everything. We join our gifts with Christ, to offer the world to the Father in love and for the life of the world. And that is the purpose of our salvation. That’s what it’s for: for the life of the world.
We are all still working within a fallen world, but Jesus provided a way through which we can be redeemed and restored and unleash those gifts unto others in turn. As Schmemann puts it, God sent his Son not only to bring us everlasting life, but to set us back on that original path of love and exchange and whole-life, whole-world transformation: to renew the material world and bring about “life in God” in the here and now, “filled with meaning and spirit.”
It is the Christian gospel that God did not leave man in his exile, in the predicament of confused longing. He had created man “after his own heart” and for Himself, and man has struggled in his freedom to find the answer to the mysterious hunger in him. In this scene of radical unfulfillment God acted decisively: into the darkness where man was groping toward Paradise, He sent light. He did so not as a rescue operation, to recover lost man: it was rather for the completing of what He had undertaken from the beginning. God acted so that man might understand who He really was and where his hunger had been driving him.
The light God sent was his Son: the same light that had been shining unextinguished in the world’s darkness all along, now seen in full brightness.
Our gift-giving, then, extends to all that we do, not just the work within the walls of our churches or our charity and “volunteer” activities therefrom. It reaches our everyday loving and lifting in our families, in the workplace, in our educational and cultural institutions, in artistic activity and creative enterprise, in political action and witness.
“All our work in this world is made of stuff of the earth,” says Koons, “all of it takes place here below, but all of it is pointed toward heaven. All of it is in a sense holy. Imagine if all of us offered our work for the good of the cities around us. How might we be able to change those cities? What would it look like if we only understood that our humble work is a heavenward offering? What would our city of exile look like then?”
The gift that came at Christmas reunites the divine generosity of the Father with the hungry world that surrounds us. The gift has already been given. As we celebrate it, let’s not forget to also receive it in all that we do.
For more, purchase For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles.