Jesus Christ Is the Gift Not Received

Christ the King was the world’s first Christmas gift — and, ever since his Nativity, people have been trying to return him.

‘Infant Jesus With Mary’
‘Infant Jesus With Mary’ (photo: Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock)

Every year after Christmas Day, a kind of reverse consumer trek occurs: many of the “perfect” gifts gotten from the store in the weeks before Christmas go back to the store in the weeks after Christmas, to be exchanged or refunded. In England, they call St. Stephen’s Day “Boxing Day,” given the tradition of Dec. 25 being spent in the family circle while the second day of Christmas becomes the time to visit family and friends with boxes of gifts. In America, we might call it “reboxing day” (save the receipt)!

I’ve often wondered about how we approach gifts in America today. A gift by its very nature is freely given. One may expect it or not, but one is not entitled to it. One may like it or not, but it remains a gift.

That’s why I’ve always been bothered by, and never complied with, the phenomenon of wedding registries. Yes, they are efficient, but gifts are about love, not efficiency. And if a gift is freely given, please don’t tell me your expectations, particularly if it’s treated as the kind of admission ticket to the reception.

Finally, in most instances, the greater focus belongs on the giver than what is given, a perspective many moderns likewise seem to have askew.

What struck me at Christmas Mass, however, was that this phenomenon is really not new.

“He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11).

John has been telling us that line from his Prologue in Christmas Mass During the Day for centuries.

Father Paul Scalia observed that the mystery of Christmas is the “paradox of proportionality” — God gives us exactly what we need, tailor-made, yet in doing so shows his richness of mercy (Ephesians 2:4), good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over (Luke 6:38).

On the one hand, God gave us just what we needed in Jesus Christ: one who was both God and man, a second Adam who could put himself in the place of all his brothers and sisters who received him and the second Person of the Trinity who, as God, could repair what man could only break by sin.

At the same time, as Father Scalia observed, while that Gift was “tailor-made,” it also far exceeded what man could expect. Israel waited for a Messiah who would pick up where the prophets left off at the Exile: restore Israel to its land, restore the Davidic line to an earthly throne, restore a faithful Israel from the remnant poor.

But, as he would reveal later to John, God is not merely about restoration (although he does that). “Behold, I make all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).

But that revelation doesn’t come from nowhere. Isaiah already asked in God’s Name, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (43:19).

Apparently not, for as the Christmas Prologue Gospel reminds us, “the world did not know him” (John 1:10b).

God did not offer Israel mere restoration of the status quo ante. Jesus came not to inaugurate the restored Kingdom of Israel but the Kingdom of Heaven — one open not to some but to all, but one which, as God promised Abraham, would be more fully populated than “the stars of the heavens” (Genesis 15:5) with a Davidic King whose reign, as promised by Nathan to the first David, would last forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

That Gift-King was born on Christmas and, ever since then, people have been trying to return him.

Herod “and all Jerusalem” were “troubled” (Matthew 2:3) by his birth, to the degree of homicide. When he offered another Gift — himself as “the Bread of Life” — many of his disciples left him because the teaching was too hard (John 6:60-66). At the moment when it was time to make a stand over who is King of Israel, the chief priests and Pharisees — who for the previous 90 years were full of reservations about the Roman occupation — publicly proclaimed “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).

Nor should our focus be on past generations. How many Christians would prefer to exchange the Gift-King who doesn’t allow divorce (Mark 10:5-9)? Who doesn’t “understand” why we need abortion as a “woman’s right?” Who affirms “male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27)? Who takes umbrage at a little cheating here, a lot of exploitation there, adulterated weights and measures and selling the poor for a pair of sandals (Amos 8:5-6)?

Alas — to them (which is all of us, since we are all sinners) — there’s no return or exchange policy on our primordial Christmas Gift.

“But to those who did accept him, he gave the power to become children of God” (John 1:12a).

That theme is pursued in the first readings at daily Mass throughout this Christmas season, almost all of which are from the First Epistle of John.

All things considered, perhaps we might take a closer look at God’s Christmas Gift. Because, as I said above, while in most cases the greater focus is on the Giver than the Gift, this case is the exception. Because the Giver is God and the Gift is God. Let us realize, as the Monks of Weston Priory put it, “how profound [is] the gift of God in Jesus Christ!” And perhaps, from that perspective, it might teach all of us jaded gift recipients to think anew about how we see and receive gifts. Especially Christmas’.

Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” c. 1601

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