A Time to Remember the Greatest Gift Ever Given

It’s hard to believe that it is Christmastime again. This Christmas will be special in light of our new family. Two separate families’ traditions will have to be negotiated into one. It’s exciting and a little bit scary at the same time.

The truth is Christmas is an event that has emerged in bits and pieces and has constantly been changing from out of the mists of antiquity to our present day. The tradition of giving gifts at Christmastime dates back to a practice in vogue in pagan Rome. Each year, on Dec. 17 and 18, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture.

At this time, Romans exchanged gifts of sweet pastry, lamps, precious stones, and gold and silver. The Early Christians, however, shunned Christmas giving, for the very reason that is was popular among the pagan Romans.

It was centuries before they accepted the custom. When they did, the custom was tied to feasts celebrated by the church. Christmas was the greatest feast of them all, and Christmastime became a season to give costly gifts.

In England, in the 11th century, William the Conqueror set an example of gift-giving by shipping the major part of his plunder from the defeat of the English Saxons to the Pope in Rome. English kings kept the spirit of giving alive, choosing Christmastime to spread the wealth. King Richard the Lionhearted annually distributed his treasure among his knights and nobles. And King John of Magna Charta fame gave his servants gifts of fine clothes.

But the kings made sure the giving was reciprocal. Henry VII began the custom of Christmas “boxes” as a means to extract tribute. Queen Elizabeth I demanded that she receive Christmas presents from the highest to the lowest of her courtiers and employees — all the way down to the pastry cook. Even the royal garbage men sent the queen two bolts of fine cloth.

But the truth is, Christmas is about more than gifts and material possessions. Dr. Paul A. Wright, Youngstown, Ohio, says in his book, “Mother Teresa’s Prescription to find Happiness and Peace in Service,” that on his first meeting with Mother Teresa he asked a question that had been burning in his heart for so long. He wanted a better understanding of God’s purpose for his life. Here is his question: “Mother, can you tell me how I will be judged at the moment of my death?” He says Mother Teresa smiled and nodded “yes.”

He could tell Mother Teresa was delighted with his question. As he waited, she explained that the answer to his question was the very foundation and purpose of her Missionaries of Charity. Then she took the Bible and immediately opened it to chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. “In the Bible, there is one place where Jesus describes how he will judge all nations, all people,” she said.

The Bible lay open in front of them, but Mother Teresa did not read from it. The story was one she had told so many people, so many times, and as she looked straight at him and spoke, he felt he was the only person she had ever shared it with.

“Jesus said when he comes to judge, he will separate all people into two groups, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And Jesus will say to those on his right, ‘You shall enter the Kingdom of Glory because when I was hungry, you fed me; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was sick, you tended to me.’ And those on the right will say, ‘But, Lord, when did I see you naked or hungry or thirsty?'”

Mother Teresa took his hand. “Jesus said whatever you do for the least of our brothers and sisters,” and touching one of his fingers with each word, she concluded, “you…did…it…to…me.”

Maybe that was the test of President Reagan’s Christmas message in 1985:

“Nancy and I are pleased to share our warmest greetings with all Americans during the celebration of this Christmas season.

“Amid all the hubbub and hustle this time of year always brings, we should not forget the simple beauty of that first Christmas long ago. Joseph and Mary, far from home and huddled in a place barely fit for habitation, felt the universal love that binds all families together and a unique awe at the special purpose for which God had chosen them. Gathering around them first the shepherds and later the Magi — poor and rich, humble and great, native and foreign — each bowed before the King whose dominion knows no boundaries. Above them was the Star, the guiding light which would shine down through the centuries for everyone seeking the way, the truth and the life.

“In the center of all lay the infant, born in the shadows and straw of a stable in Bethlehem, yet truly the fulfillment of ancient prophecies and the hope of every age to come.

“Today, as we celebrate the birth of Christ in our homes and churches, among family and friends and by our many different traditions, let us accept and share the generous gifts of joy, peace, and love given on that first Christmas. May we honor them in our hearts and keep them through the year.

“Nancy and I pray that this Christmas will be a time of hope and happiness not only for our nation, but for all the people of the world. Merry Christmas, and God bless you.”

However you decide to celebrate this season through religious or non-religious traditions, to those who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas please remember those less fortunate than you.

In reality, in the Christian faith, Christmas gift giving goes back to God the Father’s stupendous gift of His only Begotten Son (John 3:16). The Christian’s response each Christmas should be, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (II Corinthians 9:15).

From my family to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Guest columnist Cummings is pastor of Bethlehem Apostolic Temple in Wheeling and Shiloh Apostolic Temple in Weirton.