Whenever a gift is given, an invisible cargo is exchanged with it, loaded with semi-conscious messages about power-relations between giver and receiver. Offering an expensive gift to someone can be a power-play: I am rich enough to give you this. Even letting someone out into traffic can carry the same message: I am more gracious than you, more relaxed and important, and thus I am able to let you out – it’s a small thing I can do for a little person like you.
In the parable in Luke 7 we saw in the last post, we saw this being played out: a Pharisee is giving Jesus the gift of a meal. But the cargo that is delivered with that gift is more important than the food: I am the sort of person who would invite Jesus for dinner.
And so as we come to the end of this Advent series – which I hope you’ve enjoyed – we come to what I think is the essential miracle of the incarnation: the miracle of restraint. At the moment of reception of this most wondrous gift, there is virtual silence. No fanfare. Angels may have sung in the fields – something I doubt to be honest – but at the breaking in of God into human form there is nothing to shock or bedazzle.
The incarnation is the gift that carries no cargo. It has been emptied of all power. It is thus both offensive in its simplicity and infuriating in its humility. It is as if the church would prefer God to have done something powerful and strong – that’ll show them! – but God refuses. Why? Because that would twist the power-relationship, and leave us less than free to make our response to it.
In How (Not) To Speak of God Pete Rollins describes Derrida’s view of the perfect gift thus:
(1) the receiver does not know they have been given a gift
(2) nothing is actually given
(3) the giver does not know they have given anything.
In light of this, the incarnation event is this perfect gift. As we wake on Christmas morning, billions of us, we are unconsciously entering this generous space, for we do not know that we have been given anything, nothing has actually been given, and in the unformed mind of that helpless new life, the giver had no idea that they had just given something quite wonderful.
Have a great Christmas.