In our pride, we humans have developed a grotesque aversion to gifts. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.” While we have a pretty decent concept of “a thing given willingly to someone” we’ve managed to entirely surrender the “without payment” bit.
When we receive gifts, we feel the bizarre compulsion to give something in return. If, for example, you had no plans of getting your cousin something for Christmas, but then he gets you something completely out of the blue, you feel the need to run out to Walmart and buy something that at least appears to be of similar value. “Oh, I have something for you! I just left it at home by accident.”
Somewhere deep down in our hearts, we all know that the lesser is blessed by the greater. It’s beyond dispute (Hebrews 7:7). Receiving a gift is an act of humility. In our culture, receiving a gift without also giving one of near-equal value is an act of humiliation. We hate it.
Most of us, though, know someone who is so excessively opulent that we can never match their generosity. Our gifts in return always make us look like paupers, little drummer boys playing a silly song for a prince. It’s remarkable the mixture of emotions we feel at this point, humility to the point of embarrassment—and yet thankfulness (assuming we like the gift).
This moment of helpless blessedness is perhaps closer to expressing what happened at Christmas than anything else that happens throughout the whole month of December. To be sure, we all imitate God in a good way when we buy someone a gift. It is more blessed to give than to receive. But when someone blesses our face red with extravagant generosity that we could never hope to repay, that’s when we have the best idea of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation.
Contrary to popular belief, God’s gift in the incarnation is not one that we “only have to choose to accept.” Even our receiving of the gift is itself a gift, because we could never humble ourselves enough to receive such pure, unmerited favor. Our behavior at Christmas is perhaps some of the clearest evidence of this.
We also do not repay God by giving Him our life in return. He owned that anyway. Even after we’ve done everything God asks of us, we will say to God “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10) God will never owe us so much as a thank you card.
Through the incarnation, God humbled Himself beyond all metaphor. Though He deserves the highest praise, He took the lowest possible place. He died at our hands, bearing the wrath we deserved. He sank to become one of us and thereby elevated us higher than we could have ever earned. He turns His enemies into sons and daughters, then requires no payment in return.
This Christmas, let the gift of your salvation humble you. As you receive gifts, ask the Holy Spirit to help you acknowledge the fact that you have freely received much needed grace. Plead with your heart to feel the glory of the gift you were given and your own inability to respond appropriately.