“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9).

We love Christmas because, as we say, Christmas brings out the best in us. Everyone gives on Christmas, even the stingiest among us, even the Ebenezer Scrooges. Charles Dicken’s story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to form our notions of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger. Whereas Luke tells us of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others. “A Christmas Carol” is more congenial to our favorite images of ourselves. Dickens suggests that down deep, even the worst of us can become generous giving people. Yet, I suggest we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story—the one according to Luke, not Dickens—is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers. We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. This is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There, we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were, but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we, with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities, had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done. We don’t think of it, understand it, or approve of it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.

Adapted from “The God We Hardly Knew” by William Willimon (Watch for the Light).