When I was nine years old my heart was set on one thing, and everybody knew what it was, including Santa. “So what do you really want for Christmas young man?” Santa asked. “I want a Civil War army set,” I unabashedly replied. “Anything else?” “Nope. Just a Civil War army set.”
When Christmas morning finally arrived I could hardly contain myself. How I fantasized what it was going to be like, when the door to the living room would fly open. How I would make a beeline to the tree and there, among the special unwrapped presents in front of the tree, would be my very own Civil War army set. Yes!
And then the moment came. There, right in the middle, in front of the tree, with a bike for my big brother on one side and a dolly set for my little sister on the other, was what I had longed for. I grabbed the box and lifted it high, doodle dancing for joy: “I got it! I got it! I really got it!”
“Chucky, Chucky,” my Dad called out. “Slow down. Read what’s on the box.” And there, before my very eyes, on a bell shaped shiny tag, I saw the words: “For Jimmy. Love, Santa”. What? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This must be a mistake, this can’t be! Santa doesn’t make mistakes. But...
“Chucky, that gift is for Jimmy. But that one, over there,” pointing his finger down low where the tree touched the couch, “that one is for you.” “But Daddy...” But Dad kept pointing his finger, looking at me with wide-eyed expectation.
I sheepishly went over to see what Dad was pointing to. I knew that whatever it was I’d have to act excited and thankful. Otherwise, I would ruin everything.
As I bent over I saw a box with a picture of a boy, on his knees, building something. The words in bold at the top said, “Erector Set.” I hadn’t a clue what an Erector Set was. And then my older brother Rob got a hold of it. “That’s cool, Chucky. Really cool! Let me show you how it works.”
By the end of the day I was lost in a world of creating and building, of motors and pulleys and wheels and gears and levers. I didn’t get what I wanted...But I got something more, something better, something beyond.
Two thousand years ago God gave his Son to the world. But Mary was afraid, Joseph worried, and Herod became so incensed he was determined to destroy him. The Apostle Paul writes that the Greeks thought God’s gift was foolishness, and the Jews an obstacle to their liberation. And in John’s Gospel we read that the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness had not understood it; God’s Word had come to his own but he was not welcomed.
And yet, some did receive him. And those who believed became children of God. Children of who? Yes, children of God! It was they who saw first-hand God’s glory, full of grace and truth, and henceforth they received one blessing after another: Freedom from sin, peace on earth, goodwill toward all people.
Christmas is not about getting what we want or even giving what we think others want. Even less so is it getting something we or others need. It’s something far more profound than that!
I played with my Erector Set for years afterwards – adding to it, replacing parts, and inventing all kinds of new configurations and ways of using it. I kept and played with it longer than any other toy I ever had. Dad and Mom knew something about me I didn’t know. They knew I had to create and imagine and lose myself in something other than myself. And deep down, I knew that the Erector Set was more than a toy; it was a symbol of my parents' love for me and what they saw I needed to become.
That moment, when Dad was pointing his finger, I remember I had a choice whether to give into selfishness or accept what was being given. Over the years I’ve had to face this kind of decision again and again. God gives something I neither want nor expect. I long for one thing, but get another. Or worse, something or someone is taken away I’m not ready to give up. Whatever it is, I usually deem it as either stupid or a hindrance. I dig in and resist.
And yet, I’ve also learned that as soon as I accept, better yet, gladly receive what God gives, something far greater opens up. Jesus enters in and is able to bring something from God, something from heaven, something that truly makes a difference in the world. I discover anew God’s love, not just for myself but for the world.
Isn’t this what Christmas is all about – letting God enter our world so that he can transform and free it? His gift may come small, in a feeding trough, unexpectedly – barely recognizable. It may assault our desires, confound our feelings, insult our thinking, threaten our sense of control, but it comes to us from his very heart. For God is love; he always wants to give. Not as we want him to give, not as the world gives, but in a way that transcends the imagination and brings true healing and redemption to our world.
Not unlike occupied and impoverished Palestine two thousand years ago, we live in troubled and troubling times. We want job security, safer schools, better relationships, happier homes. We want cleaner environments, less stress, more freedom. But the question at Christmas time is not what we want, but what God wants and wants to give. This alone can redeem and save us. This alone matters. O, that we might be able to receive it.