A distinctive feature of the way we celebrate Christmas is the giving of gifts. As society has become more materialistic, and driven by an increasing desire for ‘growth’ (economic, social, personal) – our gifts have multiplied in number and expanded in range. The challenge of finding the right thing for a particular person.
Of course we want to please the recipients of our giving, and to spend our money well (good investment!). These criteria are important to givers and receivers. An expression of the greater perfection we try to act out at Christmas. Along with the provision of favourite foods and special treats.
From Presents to Presence
But what is really happening in the giving and receiving of gifts? An acknowledgement of a valued relationship. An expression of love and affection. An ownership of obligation or duty. In each or any of these transactions, the core is the giver making themselves present in the life of the receiver – as an act of grace (freely offered) and as a sign of connection not taken for granted, but enhanced by being expressed generously. Presents make present the giver into the life of the receiver – for good, with grace.
Presence as Present to Us
And this is the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. A gift to Mary and Joseph in the stable. A gift of a chorus of glad tidings and peacefulness to shepherds in their ordinary lives. A gift of authority, welfare and organised worship to Wise Men from the high civilisation of the East.
A gift to each of us if we will acknowledge the presence of God in the presentation to us of this life. A gift bringing real goodness and grace into ordinary lives, into the structures and rituals we need to hold us together and help us to make sense of our deep instinct to find peace on earth, goodwill among people, and a sign of that Glory which gathers all these fundamental human conditions into the hope of heaven.
Hark – Herald Angels Sing
I am sure that each of us will choose the presents we give with great care. To show our love and affection to family and friends, and to make ourselves present to them in goodness and grace.
May we take time to allow our Father, to give His gift to us – a Son, a person who can be present in our lives - a Saviour bringing and enabling goodness, grace and glory.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing,
Glory to our new born King.
I am writing this just after getting back from a visit to Angola. It was my third time in the extraordinary capital, Luanda, said to be the most expensive city in the world, where some of Africa’s richest people live cheek by jowl with some of the world’s poorest – half of Angola’s citizens live on less than $2 a day. It is sobering to see the smart new Jaguar showroom just along the road from a hospital where patients and their families sleep on the street as they wait for admission. Luanda had an infrastructure designed to accommodate half a million people. Over forty years of war – a war of independence and then a bitter civil war, with its consequential population movement – means that about six million people live there today.
One of the highlights of the visit was a trip to one of the poorest settlements in Luanda, to see the ‘Girls Building Bridges’ project run by UCF, the Angolan version of YWCA. The project is the focus of the Bishop of Derby’s Harvest Appeal this year, in partnership with Christian Aid. The project has been running for ten years and provides a one-year programme for about two hundred girls, in groups of thirty, meeting in either the morning or afternoon, depending on their school commitments. They are taught practical skills, such as sewing and cooking, as well as developing their capabilities in maths and language skills. But the most important part of the programme is the work to develop life skills and self-esteem in a society where gender stereotypes are still ingrained and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty, violence, and lack of access to education and healthcare. Domestic violence against women and children is endemic; and teenage pregnancy prevalent. During our stay we met the Director of Community Health for the Anglican diocese, a surgeon who, in the previous week, had performed hysterectomies on two 15-year olds and a 13-year old girl.
It was a moving experience to meet some of the girls on the programme. I was struck by their poise, self-confidence and articulacy as they answered questions about what the course meant to them – one of them even showing off her English! Not only do the young women become better able to cope with the pressures of daily life but they also become advocates and role models for a more just and equal society. Many of them go on to university and 70% have gone on to become peer educators, being activists in their schools, churches and communities, volunteering at local HIV clinics, and supporting women victims of domestic violence.
As I commend ‘Girls Building Bridges’ to your prayer and generosity, I do so reflecting that November gets under way with the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Saints are not necessarily particularly holy or particularly good. They are people who try to take God seriously, who try to help people whenever they can, who show the power of love in their lives, often in gentle and not immediately obvious ways. Saints are models of what human life ought to embody – integrity, compassion, self-forgetfulness, love, and numerous other expressions of beauty, truth, and goodness – and they include believers, half-believers, and unbelievers. Saints are ordinary people, you and me and countless others, whom God has set free to build his kingdom, a kingdom which takes seriously all aspects of human life. It has been said that saints are the sinners who keep on trying. I think I met quite a lot of them in Angola.
For more information about Archdeacon Christopher’s visit to Angola please watch our videoClick here