Avent III: A Season for Receiving

Continuing my reading of the book Watch for the Light in Advent, I shared a portion of it once again with my adult class on 1 Corinthians at church. The reading for the day was from our Methodist bishop in North Alabama (and former Dean of the Duke University chapel) Will Willimon.

Bishop Willimon asks whether looking at Christmas as a season of giving may be theologically problematic, at least in one respect: It can lead us to think that we are not only good and generous people, but also self-sufficient. He writes:

I suggest that we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story—the one according to Luke not Dickens—is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.

We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we—with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities—had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was to receive it….

The first word of the church, a people born out of so odd a nativity, is that we are receivers before we are givers. Discipleship teaches us the art of seeing our lives as gifts. That’s tough, because I would rather see myself as a giver. I want power—to stand on my own, take charge, set things to rights, perhaps to help those who have nothing. I don’t like picturing myself as dependent, needy, empty-handed….

It’s tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anybody else’s. It requires that we see our lives not as our possessions, but as gifts. “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace,” wrote John Wesley a long time ago….

This is often the way God loves us [referring to God's promise to King Ahaz of a baby, not a bigger army---Isaiah 7]: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be. With our advanced degrees, armies, government programs, material comforts and self-fulfillment techniques, we assume that religion is about giving a little of our power in order to confirm to ourselves that we are indeed as self-sufficient as we claim.

Then this stranger comes to us, blesses us with a gift, and calls us to see ourselves as we are—empty-handed recipients of a gracious God who, rather than leave us to our own devices, gave us a baby.

4 Responses to “Avent III: A Season for Receiving”

  1. elias tanos says:

    Hi Dr.Gorman,

    what if we saw Christmas with the eyes of someone in real material need ? he won`t be benefited from our theological correctness. I would like to present another opinion. When we give at Christmas to those who are poor we are being good news to these poor for whom the Kingdom of God came. I don`t want to be rude or accusing but would this reflection be born if we were living among the poor and homeless? If their need was in front of our eyes? Am I off the track in this?

  2. elias tanos says:

    And if I may add: If we really were better givers than getters this world would not be as it is today

  3. MJG says:

    Elias—

    Thank you for raising this perspective, with which I am largely in agreement. But I think you misunderstand Willimon a bit. Willimon’s point is not about getting, but about understanding our lives as a gift. He wants to say that an attitude of “noblesse oblige” or even of a bit of extra giving at Christmas to feel good or powerful or charitable misses the point. He does not say that giving is unimportant. Notice: “The first word of the church, a people born out of so odd a nativity, is that we are receivers before we are givers.” Self-perception as a receiver does not negate self-perception as a giver; it precedes it.

    I think others could mis-read this selection, too. Interestingly, therefore (I think), the editors of the book from which this comes placed a poem by Oscar Romero—a poem that makes your point quite forcefully—before the reading. Perhaps I should have done the same.

    Many American Christians (myself included) have been re-thinking the celebration of Christmas, trying to look with new eyes, eyes more like yours. I certainly do not want to discourage that.

  4. elias tannous says:

    thanx for the clarification, and I probably over reacted. I wouldn`t raise the point if I didn`t know that you also believe God has “preferential option for the poor” (I read it in “apostle of the crucified)

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