By Heather Judd
I have recognized a strange phenomenon in myself as I wend toward middle life: I don’t want to open my Christmas presents. It isn’t that I’m a cynical Grinch, because I love the coziness of a lighted tree with the presents prettily stacked underneath. It is just that when Christmas comes, I have to force myself to open the boxes rather than remain a contented observer. If I didn’t know that relatives would be eager to hear what I thought of their gifts, I might very well leave everything wrapped until mid-January and then pack it all away for next year.
Only recently have I realized that the “always Advent but never Christmas” mentality is a way of avoiding vulnerability. It isn’t a phenomenon confined to Christmas gifts. Even if you are the person who can’t wait to open your presents, I suspect that you have at some time or another found yourself resisting the fulfillment of an expected event for exactly the same reason.
Despite the fact that American society tends toward have-it-all instant gratification, there are plenty of cultural signs that we are also hesitant to accept the most significant gifts in life. On the whole, people put off “opening the gifts” of marriage and children and other meaningful vocations. We all like living in Neverland, where fantasy is perpetual and reality is never reached.
Fulfillment focuses all our fantasies into a single reality. You marry a specific person, have specific children, and work in a specific vocation in a specific time and place. Open the presents, and they are no longer the shiny boxes of possibilities. Instead, they are known for what they really are, whether that be the exquisite, longed-for specialty or the ugly, itchy sweater.
We can remain starry-eyed while accepting a wrapped present, but in opening it, we become vulnerable to the reality of someone else’s love. Sometimes the gift of that love is so overwhelming that we feel completely undeserving of its generosity. And sometimes that love comes in ugly, itchy sweater form.
Either way, receiving gifts requires more than a momentary humility; we change our lives a little with every gift we open. I have often been guilty of not wanting someone else’s gift of love to interfere with my orderly life. While they remain unwrapped, the presents have a designated home under my tree, but once they are opened, I must make room on my shelves and in my life to accommodate the new items.
I wasn’t such a reluctant present-opener as a child. Neither were you, most likely. Young children are used to being vulnerable. They depend completely on others to provide for their needs, and in healthy families their vulnerable trust is well-placed in the loving people who care for them. Thus, children can recognize the gifts of Christmas for what they are—manifestations of love—and they cannot wait for Christmas to come so that they can have the real gifts, not just the pretty promises. This eager longing to open and enjoy the actual present is a little picture of the childlike faith Christ instructs us to have.
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people treasured the promises of the Messiah. Then the fullness of time came, and anticipation became reality. Love became incarnate in the most vulnerable way imaginable. God became a baby.
Accepting this real, vulnerable infant as the anticipated, almighty Savior requires more vulnerability than anything else. Childlike shepherds received the gift of the infant Lord. Learned Pharisees and Sadducees would not. Their lives were too ordered for them to accept a vulnerable servant-king. Assuring themselves that they knew better, they tried to leave the shiny wrappings of the Messianic promises in place, imagining that if they waited long enough, they would find under them the kind of Savior they thought they wanted.
However, the best gifts are often the ones we didn’t think we wanted. The ugly, itchy sweater may soften in the wash and become a comfortable favorite. The poverty-stricken baby in a manger will give you gifts of love beyond your imagining.
With this realization, we kneel at the altar and receive the gift He chooses to give us. It is Himself, though it appears but bread and wine. Here we make ourselves vulnerable to the ridicule of the world that scoffs at such simple gifts and such a vulnerable God, one who shows His power in a dying body nailed to a cross. But at this altar our vulnerability in accepting the gifts of love is never disappointed because here we know the nature of the giver, and His gifts are perfect because His love is perfect. His gift is love itself. His gift is Himself.
Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming. The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up, and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call. When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.