One of my favorite parts of Advent growing up was watching as presents gradually appeared under the Christmas tree. I remember keeping an eye on them and investigating the name tags on each beautifully-wrapped parcel or bag as they showed up to see if any of them were addressed to me. When they were, I would look at the size and (I admit) pick them up and maybe give them a little shake, trying to figure out what might be waiting to surprise me inside. As Christmas approached, the excitement grew. More presents appeared at an exponential rate, and pretty soon there was a Christmas tree with red, gold, green, and silver packages surrounding it, sparkling in the soft white glow of the twinkling lights on the tree. Christmas Eve day felt like a century long as I waited to open the gifts.
I’ve noticed, as I’ve gotten older, that the excitement surrounding the gifts under the tree has shifted. The first half of my life I was occupied by the thought of receiving gifts, but the second half of my life has been occupied by the thought of giving gifts. I no longer see only the gifts under the tree that I will eventually get to open and enjoy, but I see the gifts I will eventually get to see my loved ones open and enjoy. I have been filled with joy and excitement at watching others open something that I got them, and even at watching others open gifts, even if they are not from me.
This little image translates nicely to the receiving and giving of spiritual gifts, and I see Our Blessed Mother and the Magi illustrating these two postures well in their preparation for the coming of Jesus, which I believe are important to reflect on as we prepare for Christmas.
Mary teaches us to receive fully. Imagine a little house in Nazareth where you see a young mother nearing her due-date. At this moment she’s decorating the house. Her husband enters with something behind his back. She turns from her work to greet him and he grins, revealing the just-finished crib in his hands. The mother exclaims, throwing her hands in the air and embracing him. She then examines the beautifully crafted crib and places it in the room, imagining her Son sleeping in it in only a matter of time.
Mary, however, doesn’t just prepare to receive her Son through external practices. Something unexpected happens next in this little narrative, and she’s unable to deliver her Child in the comfort of her own home with her family. You know the story. Nothing goes as expected, and she ends up going into labor in a stable in a town far from her home, because nobody had enough room for her to stay. Yet the young Mother is not dismayed, shaken, or any less ready to receive her Child. Why? Because the external preparations (being at home, with family, having everything prepared to make the Baby comfortable, etc.) were only secondary matters. The first was making sure her heart was ready to receive her Child. She did this by visiting and serving her cousin in her pregnancy, pondering in her heart all that the Lord had done for her, dying to herself to love others, and magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God her Savior in all circumstances. Thus, when external preparations fell through, she could still receive her little Baby with all the peace and joy, warmth and love in the world.
Mary shows us how to receive with an open heart, and the Magi teach us how to give with an open heart.
I now take you to the house in Nazareth where the Mother has been raising her child for about a year. They are both outside, the Babe playing happily on the ground as she hangs the laundry on a line. It’s quiet, the only sounds are the little babblings of Jesus and the wind gently flapping the clothing on the line. There’s suddenly a commotion on the street and as Mary peeps between the clothes hanging before her, she sees three mightily and richly clad men approach the house; children and adults stop their activities to watch. Mary continues to slowly hang the laundry, but the kings make straight for her and she humbly bows to them as they are now several feet from her.
Their eyes are on the Babe, but each one glances at the Mother and reverences her, and she in turn watches with joy, wonder, and profound emotion as each mighty king kneels before her Son and places before Him rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. She believes she sees tears in their eyes, and their faces have been lit with a smile that she knew all too well, as she’s experienced it herself and seen it on her husband’s face and on the faces of Simeon and Anna. Jesus looks into their faces, stopping His play, and when one of the kings offers a hand, the Babe takes it in His little fingers and laughs, delighted.
This Christmas, I am still going to be excited to receive gifts. I am also going to be excited about giving gifts. This Advent I am shifting my focus on the coming of the Lord to include this latter excitement. Rather than only focus on how I can receive Jesus on Christmas (and, as we are to prepare, at His Second Coming), I wish to also prepare my gifts for Him.