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!
Many work-places make a “gift exchange” part of their office Christmas party. This is done so that everyone brings one gift and receives one gift and it insures that everyone only has to buy one and everyone gets to receive one.
When you think about it, a “gift exchange” is a conflict in terms. For the true gift is the gift that is given, not the gift that is exchanged. Because to “give” something, means to divest oneself of something, offering it to someone else, without expecting anything in return. In other words, a true gift is offered, not given, and it is offered without any expectations and without any strings attached. (That’s why in the church context, a gift given with “strings” attached or expectations really cannot be considered a “gift”—it is an exchange. When people get mad at the church or the priest and withhold their gifts, it always makes me wonder were those really gifts to begin with?)
The Magi traveled for two years in order to meet Christ. That in itself was a gift of time. They offered Him treasures, things that had material value. While the material value of a gift is not necessarily what makes a good gift, one cannot offer a gift that costs nothing—no time, no sacrifice of something.
The Magi didn’t burst through the door of the house, rush to Jesus, offer Him their gifts and then ask “Where are our gifts?” And despite the fact that there was no exchange of material gifts, the Magi did not leave the house disappointed because they brought in gifts and didn’t depart with any.
On the contrary, the Magi did receive a gift. For beneath the star they had followed for two years lay the greatest gift of all, the Son of God in the flesh. With their own eyes, they saw God made man, heaven come to earth, what greater gift can there be?
It seems in some sense that we have become greedy. Because we measure everything in material terms. We don’t always see immaterial things as gifts. We don’t appropriately treasure the gift of a new day, the fact that we are all still living and breathing today. Or the fact that the sun came out to give warmth and promote the growth of plants. People have often lamented “Why should I give to God? He hasn’t given to me.” To which I always think “The most precious thing we have is life itself. Because without life, what good is anything that we have, including our families? We can only enjoy our families while we are alive. So the very fact that God has given each of us a gift of a new day, to do whatever you plan to do today, is a great gift He has given to us, the gift of life itself, the gift of a new day.”
Some people on Christmas will lament their gifts—they will be sad that they “didn’t get what I really wanted.” And then they will go and return the gifts and get something else with the money. Some of this behavior, I suppose, is understandable—if you get two of the same thing, I guess you return the one you don’t need. Ideally, as Jesus says in Luke 3:11, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.” That is the ideal. There are some gifts, again I suppose, that we cannot use. I do not play golf, so if someone sent me a set of golf clubs for Christmas, for instance, I would probably exchange them for something I really need but can’t afford. But I can’t say I recall lamenting a material gift.
We do tend to lament spiritual gifts, or rather our perceived lack of them, at times. We wonder why others have been blessed, or at least we perceive that they are blessed, and why we are not as blessed? However, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:7, “grace was given to EACH of us, according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Each of us has some manifestation of Christ’s grace in us. This comes out in our personalities and our talents. There is no one who has no gift to offer the world, or who has no gift to offer back to Christ. Because we are ALL made in the image and likeness of God, then everyone has infinite value in the eyes of God. So, while our gifts and talents may be different, God doesn’t value anyone more or less than anyone else—we all have infinite value in His eyes.
Because God so freely gives to us, we are to freely give to one another. When you give with strings attached, or expecting something in return, then you are “exchanging”, not “giving.” And there is an important difference.
Many people try to exchange gifts with God. They make deals with God. “I will give more money to the church, but I hope for a better seat in heaven.” As if there is preferred seating in heaven. Just to get to heaven shows that you are preferred. And there is the more common “I’ll make You a deal God—get me out of this jam that I’m in and I’ll give my life to you, or at least make a few changes in it.” Again, this is an exchange.
Christ gave us the par excellence example of offering a gift when He offered Himself on the Cross for our sins. He didn’t ask for anything in return. He didn’t demand anything in return. He didn’t try to cut a deal with God. He went to His death on the cross saying, “Father, in Thy hands I commit My Spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He didn’t go to His death asking God for a deal. To the contrary He said “Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not My Will, but Thine, be done.” (John 22:42)
And because Christ has shown us the example of how to truly give a gift, by giving His very life for us, we should also learn what it is to give, not only in how we give to God but how we give to one another. We should be willing to give to our neighbor without expectation of reward or return.
We’ve all heard the saying “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” As we go through this Christmas season, as the time of gift-giving is upon us, focus on your giving of gifts to other people, rather than the gifts you will receive. The best gifts in life really are the ones that you give, just for the joy of giving, expecting nothing in return.
Today in Bethlehem, Christ is born of the Virgin. Today, the Unoriginate begins, and the Word becomes flesh. The hosts of heaven are rejoicing, and the earth and humanity are merry. The Magi bring their gifts. The Shepherds proclaim the marvel. And we unceasingly cry aloud: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men!” (The Praises, Orthros of the Nativity, Trans. Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Look for ways to give to people 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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