This photo shows the quote on the board outside a church near my home last week.  Once I had overcome my initial shock that a church would prefer to run with a common misquote rather than the real biblical text, I wondered if it was actually true.  Is it really better?

At this time of year, many of us are in the habit of giving presents to express our love and generosity for our nearest and dearest.  Some of us give charitably to the needy.  This is a custom that has its roots in the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia and only has tenuous links with the Christmas story.  Yes, the wise men brought ‘gifts’ to Jesus – but they weren’t presents for the baby shower!   More about that later…

From a financial point of view, it’s unlikely that it is better to give than to receive.  After all, you would be worse off, unless your lavish generosity inspired an even greater reciprocation.  You’d also have spent a lot of your time shopping for presents, and most of us have too little time to do everything we’d like to, particularly at Christmas.  You might have expended a lot of emotional energy on thinking about what presents to get people.  Granted, these last two problems would have been overcome if you decided simply to give money, but then you’d have the guilt of not giving people a ‘proper’ present, and possibly their resentment that you didn’t care enough to give one.  Given all these dilemmas, perhaps it really is better not to bother giving anything at all.

So back to the misquote.  The original quote is from Acts 20:35 where Luke records Paul quoting Jesus: “It is more blessed…”  ‘Blessed’ is not the same as better.  ‘Blessed’ (in this case, the Greek word makarios) can mean happy, fulfilled, spiritually wealthy, joyful, in God’s favour).  ‘Blessed’ may be applied to unenviable situations – like the poor, the persecuted and the grieving in the Beatitudes.  Even if it is better, it probably doesn’t feel better at the time.

The greatest gift of all, which we celebrate at this time of year, is God’s gift to humanity of Jesus.  Our response to his incredible generosity is to give back to him all that we have in worship.  And we bless God.  And in our giving, we too are blessed.

The gifts brought by the magi were presented to Jesus in the context of their worship of him, the word ‘gift’ being  used in the Septuagint of Levitical sacrifices, and also by Jesus in the same context (Matthew 5:23).  So really, if we do want to give Christmas presents, we should really be giving them to God!  But in fact giving them to one another in the name of God may be as good – but only if we expect nothing in return.

May you and all your loved ones be truly blessed this Christmas!