Christmas is over but it’s still fun to think about gifts. After all, gifts didn’t make it under Jesus’ manger until the Magi showed up with their sparkly chests to mark the first Epiphany. Jesus made out okay. The Magi, according to Matthew, showed up with gold fit for a king, frankincense fit for God, and myrrh anticipating the death that would bring new life.
A nice haul for Jesus, but my wish list looks different. Yes, the gold could boost my children’s college fund, but the frankincense would upset my neighbors and I would become suspect with too much myrrh (a resin historically used for embalming the dead). I would rather choose a few of my favorite things: craft beer, a hiking shirt, and a dozen chocolate-dipped M&M-embedded pretzels. It’s still fun to think about gifts.
A Christian Century article, “The giver and the gift: A Christan’s delight in things,” caught my attention a few years ago. Yes, it mentioned “steamy sex” as you’ll see if you read it, but that’s not the reason I have read and reread the article. It was written by Miroslav Volf, a Croatian Protestant theologian now teaching at Yale Divinity School. While sex has a way of grabbing one’s attention, the depth of the article is found in a discussion about pleasure and meaning and gifts.
Volf begins the article powerfully: “In choosing between meaning and pleasure we always make the wrong choice.” Yet his thesis is that we need not make a choice at all: “The unity of meaning and pleasure, which we experience as joy, is given with the God who is Love.”
Volf writes that pleasure is derived from two things. First, it’s found in the way we sense things, for example, in the color of the M&Ms, the crunch of the pretzel, the taste of salt folded into sweet and bitter. But we also derive pleasure from the social relations inherent in things. The dipped pretzel is all the more pleasurable knowing the maker of the pretzel, my spouse. And knowing that she not only made them, but she also lovingly stowed a bag of them in the back of the freezer, thus eluding the hordes of hedonistic family and friends who would have devoured them over the holidays.
Pleasure is more than just savory and sweet; it is sacramental. Volf argues that we enjoy things most when we experience them like sacraments, as “carriers of the presence of another.” Meaning and pleasure find unity in the giver and the gift. I hope to discover that unity in this season of Epiphany.
Perhaps a few of you committed to a New Year’s resolution. I try to keep mine as specific as possible because commitments like, “Be nicer,” or “Watch fewer YouTube videos” are either immeasurable or easily forgotten. Perhaps a smaller commitment will do for us and our ministry? Enter the season of Epiphany. The season of gifts.
The virtue of liturgical seasons is that they come in bite-sized chunks. Four Sundays in Advent. Twelve days of Christmas. Forty days of Lent. Five weeks of Epiphany, which begins January 6. I find that life is best taken in bite-sized chunks as well. Think of diets, exercise plans, academic calendars, work projects… I see an opportunity to mash-up the five weeks of Epiphany before us with a bite of life.
From the time I was a young middle-child, I preferred being awake in the morning when other people were not. This was mostly in order to slurp down my breakfast, get dressed, ready my backpack and then recede from the drama of my three waking siblings. I continue to wake up before others, but now it is to take a little time for prayer and devotion and writing. After the 20th time encouraging parishioners to do it, I figured it was time I took a try.
In this season of Epiphany I intend to write each day on some gift that has come my way and then try to imagine my relation to the giver. Volf writes: “To think of a gift, you must, of course, think of a giver.” A dipped pretzel given by a spouse. A pint glass from an old friend. A maple tree given by the creator of a beautiful and vulnerable creation. This last type of gift and giver is what I intend to reflect on most. As Volf wrote:
We have a giver (God), a recipient (you), and a gift (the world). A gift is not the object given as such. Little trinkets on the shelves of gift stores are not gifts; they become gifts when somebody gives them to somebody else. In other words, gifts are relations. If the world is a gift, then all things to which you relate—and many to which you don’t—are also God’s relation to you.
There are five weeks in this season. It’s going to be a busy one for me, recruiting leaders for spring small groups, planning midweek Lent services, working on a staff transitions at my church. But as I reflect on Epiphany and pleasure and meaning, I see a bite-sized opportunity to live more fully, gratefully, and deeply.
Christmas is over but that means Epiphany has just begun. Where will you and those with whom you minister discover pleasure and meaning? I hope to find it in gifts. Even more, I hope to find it in the giver. What an Epiphany that would be.
Thomas is co-pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. From a family of pastors and nurses in his native Minnesota, Thomas graduated from St. Olaf College before relocating to the Northeast to finish his education at Princeton Theological Seminary and The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Thomas is passionate about faith formation and outreach, leading a dynamic small group ministry and offering “Free Prayer” at coffee shops throughout his local area on a weekly basis. His writing has appeared in Duke Divinity School’s Faith and Leadership online magazine, Ministry Matters, and Living Lutheran.
Thomas is married to Abigail Visco Rusert, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. They live in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, with their daughters Dorothy and Solveig, their son Frank, and their Vizsla, Summit. Thomas enjoys taking his children for hikes with the dog on his day off and then cooking a nice meal for the family while listening to music and sipping a glass of wine or a pale ale.