One year, a week before Christmas, my children and I came home to find a gift on the back doorstep. This gift was an enormous bag of sweets and a dozen cans of soft drink. There was no card on the gift and none of our neighbours had seen anyone approaching. We did not know who had given it to us; it was a totally free gift.
At Christmas time it is usual to give and receive gifts and there are rituals surrounding this. To a large extent, one of the key rituals is reciprocity – rather than simply giving presents, we exchange presents. Even if we are not in a position to give in return, we do express our gratitude. Our Christmas ritual of giving and receiving presents is a great way to show we care and is often fun! Yet it is not so common to get a gift totally outside the normal rituals.
Usually I would put away presents until Christmas day. However, because the gift on the back doorstep came free of obligation it was not put away. Instead we called in all the children in the neighbourhood to come and share it with us. Those that came then went and got their sisters and brothers and other children they knew until all the cans of soft drink were given out. We put on music and had a party in the middle of the afternoon. Although we had invited all the children in the street, we still had sweets left over to give to anyone who came to our house over the Christmas period. Because the gift was completely free and not a reward or a payment, it was not only easy to share with anyone who happened to be around, we wanted to do so.
The life offered to us by God is similar to this gift on the back doorstep. We do not earn it and we do not have to pay for it; it is freely given. Sometimes this is not easy to accept. If we read the parable of the prodigal son, we may have sympathy for the elder brother who has worked hard for his father; why should the younger son, after all the heartache he has caused, have a party? When we read the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, we may think it unfair that the labourers who worked the whole day received the same pay as those who worked only an hour. Certainly, if this happened in our place of employment we would probably not agree that the last will be first and the first will be last. We would more likely call in the union!
Advent is the time we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is the time to wait for the one who comes and offers us life in abundance. Life in abundance is a new way of being and is outside our usual patterns. It is not about getting what we deserve, it is about receiving something freely given. This giftedness is the foundation of the Christian life. The acceptance of life as gift means we do not need to focus on what we do or acquire for ourselves, nor do we need to compare ourselves with others or compete with others.
Sometimes we can use giving as a means to ‘look good’ to ourselves or others. We may see it as our duty. We can use the poor or the disadvantaged as a stage on which to display our goodness.
Seeing life as gift enables us to share what we have just because we want to. It enables us to see the world as belonging to all. It enables us to take responsibility to care for the world and to work to ensure all people are able to share fully in life. The abundant life offered by Jesus is not just for us or those like us; it is for all people.