Source: All Saints Orthodox Church
'Tis the season! For the majority of our countrymen, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas will be a time to shop for loved-ones. And this is an honorable thing - pondering what gift might cause a spouse or child or parent or friend to light up with joy when it is opened. This is, after all, our American tradition, time-honored and, unfortunately, increasingly commercialized.
I would like to challenge you, however, to think of gift-giving as Christ thought of it, and to practice it the way He practiced it. For example, how does God distribute gifts? The Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, gave Himself to the entire human race. When the Son of God humbled Himself to become the Son of Man in real time in a real place, He gifted us with the opportunity to be reconciled to and reunited with God. What? How easy is it for us to say this! But the thought of it - were we to actually sit in a dim, quiet room and contemplate our new reality - should boggle our minds, and stir our hearts!
Millions of people throughout history have given their lives as martyrs to defend this very Truth. And today we are content, it seems, to be comfy cozy in our new slippers and sip cider around the tree, enjoying our own "personal religious practices" at the appropriate service times - practices which don't "infringe" on our neighbor. But in earlier centuries, Christianity spread like wildfire not because people kept it to themselves, but because they were aflame with the Holy Spirit, awestruck by the notion that God loved them enough to become man - to redeem their lives and save their souls! And this was so amazing to the early Christians that they could not help but proclaim to their neighbors their newfound life and love.
But wait, there's more. They also attracted people to Christ because they lived in a radically different way - actually called "the Way" in Acts 9. People saw their joyous attitudes in acts of love and caring for the poor, etc. and either hated them for shaking up the status quo or wanted to be a part of the movement.
We always go back to the life of Christ. After first incarnating love, He matured into adulthood, teaching others how to live in love. He taught His followers to look after those less fortunate than themselves, saying "When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind" (Luke 14:13). Christ preached of blessed Lazarus and the rich man, who neglected the broken brother at his gate and met his demise in Hades. Lazarus wasn't the rich man's shot at avoiding torment in Hell; Lazarus was the rich man's opportunity for salvation - his chance to look outside himself and find Christ in his brother, one of the "least of these" so loved by Jesus!
For most of us, the prospect of seating Lazarus at our Christmas meal makes us feel very uncomfortable. But we can start small. How about prayerfully looking for a family in the neighborhood who has unmet needs this month? Or buying a meal for the guy with the sign on the corner? Or intentionally reducing our consumption of food by 1/3 during the Nativity Fast, and donating that amount of food to the poor through our parish or, better yet, personally taking it to those in need. You see, human contact is the part of almsgiving that has the greatest effect. Anyone can go to a soup kitchen, but to have a hot meal, or even a grocery bag full of canned foods delivered to one's door with a smile is life-changing, because love is life-changing. Acts of love are offered to the recipients of bagged stuffing and canned cranberry sauce, but the biggest transformation always takes place in the heart of the cheerful giver. Almsgiving and care for those in need are integral parts of our Faith. They are not optional, but rather they are among the criteria by which we will ultimately be judged. As we reach outside ourselves in an inconvenient way, our initial motivation might be to fulfill a commandment or to avoid some eventual punishment. But at some point our heart will realize the truth of Jesus' assertion that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).
As we have received the most awesome Gift of all time in the miraculous birth of our Awesome God, may our hearts be softened and warmed toward our neighbor and his needs, especially during this transformative time of the Nativity Fast, when we prepare to receive in the cave the One who gave everything for us.