Christmas Eve, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us… according to his mercy” (Tit. 3:4-5).

“Grace” means “gift”: something given freely, not because it’s owed but because it’s in the power of the giver to bestow it. We sometimes make a distinction between a gift that’s deserved and one that’s undeserved, but once we start talking about what we’re owed or about our prior claim we’re no longer talking about a gift. A gift says more about the giver than it does about the one who receives it, since the giver determines the gift; though I think it’s also true that most givers want their gifts to “fit,” to be suitable and able to be received. Of course, being a grateful recipient is important as well, as gifts also help define those who receive them.

Christmas is the preeminent season of gift-giving. Each of us has the opportunity in this season both to give gifts and to receive them. Truth be told, there are probably one or two gifts under my Christmas tree that are gifts to myself, and so scarcely figure as gifts. The gifts that you and I share with others are signs of relationship, of connection, the link between the giver and the recipient. Reciprocal exchange, gift for gift, is fine but is not required, since gifts are given freely. All that’s called for is openness, a willingness on the part of the giver and the one willing to receive.

Grace is the gift that God gives; and Christmas is the season of grace. God is a great giver of gifts, and the fact that he gives them is a sign of relationship. God gives his power and presence in our lives, and that is grace. All life is a gift, if we choose to receive it as such: a gift or grace that comes from God. Maybe life isn’t a gift but only a given, something we don’t need to be grateful for; but if it’s only a given then we still need to look beyond ourselves for the Giver.

A world and a life that’s not a gift is an altogether bleaker reality, if you ask me. Without being a gift, a lot of the grace of living disappears. Yet the Christmas feast says to us that we have the capacity for gift within us, a capacity for giving and receiving: a capacity we need to nurture and extend so that we can be more fully the people we were meant to be.

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us… according to his mercy” (Tit. 3:4-5), it says in our reading tonight. Salvation is a gift that Christ brings into the world. “Not because of any works of righteousness that we had done” (Tit. 3:5), St. Paul adds, to make clear that this is a gift, a mercy, and not something we can contrive or earn for ourselves. “We are justified by his grace” (Tit. 3:7), as St. Paul says; in other words, by his free gift. Our reading speaks of renewal and rebirth, of the new life we so desperately need in the face of human sin, and which can only be received as a gift. If we had the power to grant that new life to ourselves then I guess we would have already done so.

Tonight the angels celebrate that same gift, reminding us that it is freely given. Tonight we are given peace, as it says in our Gospel, not because we are deserving or undeserving, grateful or forgetful, but because God gives peace to “those whom he favors” (Lk. 2:14). Peace, a gift so often linked to grace in the Letters of Paul, is God’s shalom, where everything is in proper relationship. God gives peace to those whom he favors, to those he loves. It’s a gift, in other words, a grace that says more about the Giver, who loves without stinting, than it does about ourselves.

Yet the giving of this grace, of God’s favor, will transform us if we are able to receive it. Like Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds in our Gospel, we too are caught up in the gift that God gives us. The gift of renewal and rebirth is a fitting one, one for which we have the capacity; a gift with the power to re-define us as the People of God.

The “good news of great joy” at the birth of Jesus Christ “is for all the people” (Lk. 2:10), as it says in our Gospel. So we say this evening: increase in us, Lord, our capacity to receive this gift. Make us open to the gift you have prepared for us and the grace you give. Give us the grace we need, not only for this day, but for the all the days ahead.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee