Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany” and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”
Then opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
Good morning Prayer Team!
It seems that gift-giving, for many, has become the center-piece of the Christmas holiday. Gifts have also become the greatest source of stress during the Christmas season. We stress about trying to find the perfect gift for everyone. It is stressful trying to find a parking space at the mall in order to buy gifts. We stress about how much time it takes to shop. We wonder whether the person will even like the gift we are buying. Then we stress out about how we will pay for all the gifts. People who receive lots of gifts stress about where to put them. People even stress about getting thank you cards out. If two people exchange gifts and one person gives an expensive gift while the other one buys a less expensive gift, this could cause a friendship to be scarred. So there is stress even in exchanging gifts.
The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas comes from the visit of the Magi, who brought gifts to Christ. This has led to an almost obsession with gifts being associated with this important holiday. The local mall doesn’t have a banner extolling the Nativity of Christ, but a running clock of days and hours until the end of the Christmas shopping season. As you read this message this morning, you’re probably already keenly aware that there are only 6 shopping days left.
Think about all the stress surrounding the Nativity of Christ—a pregnant virgin, an unsure Joseph, no room at any inn, an overpopulation in Bethlehem, the danger of the fields, the fear caused by the angel, the uncertainty of the shepherds, the anger of King Herod, and the long journey of the Magi. The LEAST stressful part of the first Christmas was the offering (notice I did not say exchanging, come back tomorrow to read about that) of gifts from the Magi to Christ.
Most people think a gift requires an outlay of money. The most meaningful gifts, if you think about it, cost no money. I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve met at summer camp over the years who have told me “My parents buy me whatever I want, I just wish they would spend more time with me.” I can’t tell you how many times when people have asked me what I want for Christmas, I tell them either I need some help in my ministry, or for any gesture that will lessen my stress. The hardest gift to give is not an expensive gift. The hardest gift to give is usually the gift of time, or a sympathetic ear, or a heartfelt letter. That’s why when someone offers me either, these are the gifts I treasure most of all.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give a great gift. If our son writes me a note saying “My gift to you this Christmas is a pledge to clean my room daily and not need reminders to do my homework,” that would be a great gift. Can you imagine a husband and wife exchanging notes which say: “To my dear wife, I promise I’ll remember to pick up my socks” and “To my dear husband, I promise I’ll pick them up without nagging when you forget.” Again, think about it, the best gifts are not the ones that cost the most money. These may, in fact, be the easiest gifts, because they don’t require emotion or vulnerability.
You’ve still got six days left to “shop” for Christmas. Think of some non-material gifts you can give to those you love. A letter telling them what they mean to you. A pledge to improve some area of a relationship. Forgiveness for a past offense. These are meaningful gifts that never wear out and never need to be replaced.
Whatever gift you offer, whether it is a material gift or a non-material gift, requires sacrifice. There is not gift that doesn’t involve sacrifice. And when you make a sacrifice, you are supposed to do it with joy. When a person makes a giving gesture to someone else, they are not supposed to brag (or lament) what it cost them: “Look, I bought this expensive gift for you,” or “Look what I sacrificed for you.” That kind of giving creates either an obligation to give a gift in return, or guilt for accepting the gift, or both. So, whatever you are “giving,” give with joy. Focus on the joy of giving, not the sacrifice. Allow the receiver of the gift to accept it with joy and without any guilt.
And there is no such thing as self-sacrifice. You can’t take from yourself and turn around and give right back to yourself. That is self-serving. So when you decide you want to buy a gift for yourself, it is really not a gift. You are going to buy something for yourself, but you can’t call it a gift. A gift is divesting yourself of something—either money, or time, or emotion—and imparting that to someone else.
Heaven called the Magi by a star, and thus it brought the first-fruits of Gentiles to You, the infant lying in the manger. And they were amazed, not by scepters and thrones, but by the utter poverty. For what is more shabby than a cave? And what is more humble than swaddling clothes? But it was through these that the riches of Your Divinity shone forth. Lord, glory to You! (Hypakoe from the Orthros of the Nativity, Trans. Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Give with joy today!
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The Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) is an official agency of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. OCN offers videos, podcasts, blogs and music, to enhance Orthodox Christian life. The Prayer Team is a daily devotion written by Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis, the parish priest at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida. Devotions include a verse from scripture, a commentary from Fr. Stavros, and a short prayer that he writes to match the topic.
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