There’s nothing like a little Christmas morning chaos. Seeing children bound down the stairs wide-eyed at the colorfully wrapped presents under the tree is something to which every parent looks forward (coffee in hand at that early hour, of course). There’s the inevitable flurry of wrapping paper flying in all directions, the squeals of joy, the flashing lights and sounds of those new electronic devices, or the latest cool toy – all of which have become the expectation for an American Christmas.
But there’s also the inevitable letdown once the wrapping paper is cleaned up and the toys and other ephemera are sorted out. Every year it seems like the truth is revealed that not all Christmas gifts are equal. That toy that a child pined for over the course of months is suddenly left sitting in a corner while he plays with the box it came in. That expensive gift you put a lot of thought into for your loved one is now set aside and forgotten. While they may be appreciated, there are always a few gifts that are just never put to use.
A survey of parents in the U.K. estimated that approximately 25% of the gifts given to children at Christmas are never used, thus there’s been a push to give kids fewer – but more meaningful – gifts. In terms of real money, that’s more than a billion British pounds worth of gifts that don’t make the cut. And that doesn’t count all the gifts that adults might give to one another that are quietly donated to the local thrift store or regifted to another unsuspecting person the following year.
The best gifts are always those that elicit a practical response, whether that be regular enjoyment or regular use. Thank-you cards are still the standard response to receiving any gift, but the greatest thank-you a giver can receive is seeing the gift become a regular part of the recipient’s life. When that happens, the relationship between the giver and the receiver is strengthened and there’s an anticipation that more gifts may be exchanged between them in the future.
Of course, the very reason we give gifts at Christmas time is because of the gift the world received in Jesus Christ. Some would say it’s because the Magi gave gifts to Jesus (which is technically more of an Epiphany thing), but we associate this holiday with gift-giving more than any other. Curiously, however, we tend to celebrate this divine gift by giving gifts to one another instead of considering what response we might offer to the ultimate Giver. In the midst of all the buying, wrapping, and regifting, it’s easy for us to forget that the gift of grace we have received in Christ is one designed for everyday use, and that our best thank-you card to the Giver is to use it!
The Greek word for “grace” is the same word used for “gift” (charis). Usually, we think of this gift as being “free” and coming to us without any strings attached, much like a little child receives a Christmas gift and is expected to give nothing in return. Indeed, God’s grace is “free” in that it is given without consideration for the worthiness of the recipient. God offers the free gift of grace to all, the divine Giver lavishing His favor on His children. This gift of grace is unconditional in that it doesn’t depend on one’s status or good works to receive it – not a Santa Claus-y type of grace in which only the good little boys and girls are offered it and the naughty get lumps of coal.
Grace is unconditional in the giving, but it is also a gift designed to be opened, used daily, enjoyed and treasured. It’s the kind of gift given for the benefit of altering one’s life. In that sense, it’s also a conditioning gift … the sort of gift that changes the relationship between the giver and receiver and conditions the receiver into a new way of living. As New Testament scholar John Barclay says in his book Paul and the Power of Grace, “This grace is free (that is, without conditions) but not cheap (that is, without expectations or obligations).”
This is the way Paul describes the gift in his letter to Titus, our reading for Christmas Eve. Luke gives us a beautiful story of the first Christmas, the arrival of Jesus, and the song of the angels. Isaiah describes the gift given in a child born for us. But Paul’s short admonition reminds Titus and those of us gathered on Christmas Eve to remember, to celebrate, and to use the gift of grace we have been given.
“For the grace of God [the gift of God] has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” Paul writes (Titus 2:12). Paul connects to what he had been writing to Titus about in the previous verses, giving instruction to different populations in the church to teach and act in ways that are “consistent with sound doctrine” (v. 1). Each of the different groups are to reflect a way of life that will not “discredit” the word of God (v. 5), that will prevent their opponents from having anything evil to say about them (v. 8), and that will reveal them as “an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior” (v. 10). The reason they are to live this way is because “the grace of God has been revealed” and the gift of God must be used not only for their benefit but for the benefit of the world and particularly for those who have yet to receive God’s offer of the gift of salvation in Christ.
The gift of grace is thus conditioning, “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (v. 12). It’s the kind of gift that causes followers of Christ to lay aside the kind of useless and temporal gifts the world offers as shiny inducements to happiness and instead reorder their lives after the pattern of the Gift. The appearance of Christ as the world’s ultimate gift was not just for salvation at some future time or at one’s death, but for full salvation now — a life that finds its happiness and security in being patterned after the image of God, the image of Christ in which we were created. A life that receives, opens, and uses the gift of grace in the present can anticipate an even greater gift in the future: “the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (v. 13). The One who came as a tiny gift in a Bethlehem manger will come again as a gift that the whole world will acknowledge, and those who have been conditioned by the original gift will be even more blessed and rewarded by the next!
Christ is the ultimate Gift, the One who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity” (v. 14). We had done nothing to deserve the gift, nor could we do anything to be worthy enough to receive it. He offers Himself to us unconditionally, humbling Himself as a servant, a slave, and being obedient to the point of death on a cross for us, as Paul says in Philippians 2. And yet this gift is not given simply to be enjoyed, shelved, or set aside for some later time. It is a conditioning gift, one in which the Giver will “purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (v. 14). The way in which we live our lives is our best thank-you card to the one who gave us the greatest gift we will ever receive.
How are you putting the gift of grace to use? How does your life reflect the character of the Giver? With whom will you share the Gift?
The truth is that most of the Christmas presents we receive this year will be forgotten or discarded within a few months or years (or, if you’re a toddler, a few minutes). We’ll have spent a lot of time picking out gifts that are temporary. We must remember, however, that the best gift we will ever receive – and the best gift we can ever offer to someone else – is the gift of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. We receive it and offer it best when we live for the glory of the One who has given the gift to us.
And regifting is always an option!