The Gift

How are you all sitting here so quietly? There no fidgeting, no toe-tapping, no glancing at watches. Don’t you know what day it is? It’s Christmas Eve! This is the night! Wonders will happen! Anything is possible! Who knows what happy miracles await us when we wake up tomorrow morning?

When I was a little girl, on Christmas Eve there was one thing I was more excited about than any other. It wasn’t presents. It wasn’t about the arrival of Santa. It was my belief—and I’m not sure where I first heard this—that my animals would be able to talk at the stroke of midnight on Christmas morning. Every Christmas, I did all I could to keep myself awake, certain that my guinea pig Caesar and my cat Barfy (who was named for obvious reasons), would be able to speak to me in my own language and tell me something amazing. It didn’t need to be anything earth-shaking; I knew it was possible that even a simple “hi” would cause me to pop with joy.

Years later I did some research about the idea of animals talking in those first moments of Christmas morning. Some historians believe it started a few hundred years ago in Europe, where stories circulated that farm animals and family pets would be granted the ability to speak when the clock struck twelve so they could share the good news of Christ’s birth with the world. Others think the story evolved from the belief that the ox and the donkey bowed down in the stable in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. A Christmas carol called The Friendly Beasts was written in France in the 12th century to celebrate the gifts of the animals on that first Christmas. I’m not going to sing it for you, but these are the lyrics:

Jesus our brother, kind and good Was humbly born in a stable rude And the friendly beasts around Him stood, Jesus our brother, kind and good.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown, “I carried His mother up hill and down; I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.” “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow all white and red “I gave Him my manger for His bed; I gave him my hay to pillow his head.” “I,” said the cow all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep with curly horn, “I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm; He wore my coat on Christmas morn.” “I,” said the sheep with curly horn.

“I,” said the dove from the rafters high, “I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry; We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I.” “I,” said the dove from the rafters high.

Thus every beast by some good spell, In the stable dark was glad to tell Of the gift he gave Immanuel, The gift he gave Immanuel.

I love how each of the animals in this song is proud of what he or she has to offer as part of the story of true love being born into the world. The animals gave what they could—their gifts arose from who they were and what they had to give. Like the shepherds who would come and offer their watchfulness, becoming the first reverent witnesses of Christ, and the magi that would follow with gifts from their abundant treasuries. All of us who are drawn to love bring what we can. Our gifts arise from who we and what we live and know.

Love at its essence is invitation—an invitation to connect, to join in the fun, to share the light and warmth, to add to another’s joy or make life a bit easier for someone who is struggling. Love is the lifeblood of hope, the reason life gets better. Love is the way we shoulder each other’s burdens and pray together for peace—for ourselves, our families, and our world.

Chances are that, across your span of Christmases, you’ve seen several different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I personally love one that was produced way back in 1935—the acting is terrific, and the dialog stays very true to Dickens’ story. I also love the Bill Murray movie, Scrooged, which keeps to the spirit, if not the letter, of the literature. This Christmas I felt inspired to go back and read Dickens original story, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s a good read, with well-written characters, meaningful encounters, and what I thought was a pretty sound theology. I also discovered something interesting that I’d never noticed in the TV and movie versions I’ve seen through the years.

There’s a scene that caught my attention that happens right after Marley visits Scrooge. Marley, you may remember, is Scrooge’s miserly business partner, who died seven years before the story begins. On this Christmas Eve, Marley returns as a ghost to warn Scrooge that he is headed for a bad end and three ghosts will be visiting him that night to convince him of the need to change course. Scrooge’s answer so far, of course, is “Bah humbug.” After Marley leaves, Scrooge looks out the window and sees ghosts flying all around in the air, making mournful and haunting sounds. I always thought of that as uncomfortable evidence of Marley’s warning—this is what will happen to you, Scrooge, if you don’t change your ways. But when you listen to this as Dickens wrote it, you may hear something different—an echo of the love at the center of our souls that yearns to be shared:

“[Marley] beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley’s Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped.

Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.” [A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Chapter 1]

What touches me is that their misery comes not because they were souls who missed the mark, people who had lived selfishly or done bad things during their lives. They were in misery because they wanted now to be of help to others and were unable. They had lost the opportunity to love.

So often we think in terms of good and bad, right and wrong. The good should be rewarded, we think, and the bad punished. But what if life is simpler than that? Perhaps the gift that we are given, the gift Jesus taught and teaches every single day, is that it is our choice in each moment to share light, kindness, and goodwill with any and all who cross our path. That’s how the light gets into the world. But we have to choose to participate.

The phantoms in A Christmas Carol weren’t being punished, they were mourning the fact that they no longer had the option to be part of the sharing of the light. They couldn’t make a difference in the life of another; they were unable to contribute something hopeful, to smile or offer an encouraging word, sharing little gleams of love.

“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings.” Our Old Testament reading says. Richard Foster’s commentary tells us that the phrase “herald of good tidings” is significant here because it is the first time in the Bible that a term meaning “gospel”—or good news—is used. Foster says this verse perfectly encapsulates the substance of the entire gospel. The message is, “Here is your God.”

This is what Jesus says, and shows, and lives—in his day and in ours, through us, one loving act at a time. Born of a humble birth, to a young mother and her betrothed, with not even the most meager supplies and preparations—a bed to sleep in, warm blankets, perhaps a midwife and other birthing necessities of the day—Jesus came into this world to teach and model the free pouring out of true divine love.

What else do we need in this world in order to love? We don’t need houses and cars and social standing. We don’t need things at all. We need gentleness, humility, sensitivity, and willingness. We need our connection to God. We need the faith that listens for angels and looks for stars. That kind of love—that transcendent love–releases us from all that is unimportant, frees us from false prisons of ego and pride, heals us of old hurts and grudges that separate us, and opens our hearts so we can give freely, truly, lovingly, as the opportunity arises. That kind of love instantly closes the gap between the tiniest living being on the planet and the great, tender, and uncontainable I AM.

“Here is your God!” say the angels to the shepherds in that beloved passage from Luke. I love the traditional King James version here: “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of a great joy which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds didn’t hesitate; they grasped the opportunity and immediately set off on the journey, sheep and all. And they became the first human witnesses to divinely pure love, newly born, baby-sized, into the world.

This Christmas, the invitation to love is our greatest gift. It is a gift given to each of us personally, purposely, and perpetually, reoffered in each new moment. Let’s be awake for them all, keeping our hearts open, our minds receptive, our hugs ready. Draw close to the manger, however it appears in your life. Pet the donkey, give the shepherds a drink. Listen at night for the animals’ speech. When the star beckons, follow. And bless the parents. And adore and marvel—and welcome–the child.

 

RESOURCES

  • Isaiah 40: 9
  • Luke 2: 8-15

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