Friday, December 7, 2018

The Price of Christmas

     The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. 
     Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. 
-Matthew 13:44-46)

You could probably have guessed that Christmas was going to cost you more this year than last. You just didn’t know how much more. PNC Wealth Management can help you with that.
     The financial organization has released, for the 35th year in a row, their Christmas Price Index. The index is a tongue-in-cheek (but accurate) look at the escalating price of Christmas, as seen through the classic Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
     According to PNC, this year it will cost you $170,609.46 to surprise your true love with the items in the song if you repeat the gifts each day as the song suggests (a total of 364 gifts). That’s up only one half of a percentage point from last year. On a budget? Then just buy each item in the song once for the low, low price of $25,969.43 – an increase of 1.7%. 
     Prefer to shop online? Shipping is going to add a considerable amount. Ever try to ship seven swans a-swimming? (I’m pretty sure they aren't available on Amazon Prime.)
     Higher food costs pushed the cost of six geese a-laying (laying eggs, as opposed to geese a-laying in the freezer of your grocery store) to $390, better than an 8% jump over last year - by far the largest increase in the index. The going rate for musicians has apparently increased as well: it’ll cost you $2,804.40 to hire eleven pipers piping and $3,038.10 for drummers drumming. (No word on whether you get a break if the pipers drum and the drummers pipe.)
     Strangely, while lords a-leaping will cost you $1,000 each (up $300 from last year), ladies dancing are a bargain at $7,552.89 for nine ($839.21 each for the sixth year in a row). Someone should take note of inequities in the salaries of men and women in the entertainment industry.  
     There is good news in the index: the prices of a partridge (just over $20), two turtle doves ($375), three French hens ($60.50 each), and calling birds (about $150 a piece) remained flat. Seven swans, a-swimming or not, are the most expensive items on the list ($13,125 for the set), but they haven’t gone up in the last couple of years.
     But for the biggest bargain in the index, look right in the middle of the song. For $750, you can get your true love a fist full of gold rings. That’s down over 9% from last year.
     I’m imagining one of those MasterCard commercials: “Five gold rings: $750. Seven swans a-swimming: $$13,125. A Christmas she’ll never forget: priceless.”
     Priceless. Lest we forget, that word describes what Christmas is really about better than it describes anything else. In all our rushing around, internet browsing, and catalog-perusing (“Does Harry and David even carry partridges or pear trees?”) for the perfect gifts, we can easily overlook the reason for the gifts we give. What we should be recalling as we make final preparations for another Christmas is that we give Christmas gifts because God gave a gift first. Our gifts seem to get more and more expensive every year, as our credit-card bills will attest in January. But maybe “pricey” and “priceless” are more different than the words themselves suggest. And maybe, if you’re like me, before you spend another dime on the one kind of gift, you need to take a minute or two to reflect on the other.
     A treasure hidden in a field. A pearl of great value. When Jesus wanted to talk about what it’s like to live in God’s world and pursue his agenda, he described it as a treasure so priceless that when you get a glimpse of it, you wouldn’t hesitate to give up everything you have to possess it. There isn’t much you could say that about, probably – something so valuable to you that you’d consider it a bargain to live on the street if only you could have that one thing. But that’s the very definition of “priceless,” isn’t it: so beyond our standard methods of measuring value that we can’t even place a price tag that would make sense on it? Something is really only priceless when it has value far beyond what human beings can attribute to it.
     Christmas, of course, is about the event and ultimately the person who was the focal point for this new reality God created for us. When Jesus talked about God’s kingdom as a pearl or a hidden treasure, he was also talking about himself as the one through whom that kingdom has come, and through whom it will come in its culmination. Let’s not forget that the gifts we give to one another should call our attention to the Gift he gives to us in Jesus. Let’s not forget that the gifts we receive from one another should remind us to receive graciously the Gift God gave to us graciously.
     Jesus comes to us first, even before we know enough to look for him or recognize him. Like the hidden treasure in the field, we uncover the gift unexpectedly, often while we’re all about other things. It has nothing to do with our goodness, or ingenuity, or perseverance. Jesus is God’s gift to give, and he offers it to us on his own initiative, out of his own goodness and grace, and in his own way and time. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” How and why the treasure got into the field, we can’t say. How and why we were blessed to find it is not necessarily for us to know. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work…It’s God’s gift from start to finish!” (Ephesians 2:8, The Message) It’s left for us only to celebrate.
     And then again, the gift God gives us in Christ is like that valuable pearl; he fulfills our wildest dreams more completely than we could ever hope. By his grace, we find one day that he is everything we’re looking for, and more than we could ever expect. By his grace, we recognize that the greatest catastrophe to ever befall us would be to lose what we’ve been given, to have it in our grasp and let it slip away. By his grace, we come to know that all of the other trinkets we’ve spent our lives pursuing together don’t come close to matching the value of God’s single perfect gift.
     So that’s why the only response that makes sense is the response of the fortunate people in the parables: you let everything else go. The Lord who put aside equality with God and took on the limits and pains of humanity and our fallen world asks that we live his life after him. He asks that we rise above our preoccupation with self, loosen our grip on the false treasures that leave us unable to receive his gift, and be alert for the ways in which God will offer the gift of Christ to others through our lives. He asks us to follow him in giving to others: our time, our resources, our energy, and our lives
     There’s no Christmas Price Index to help us put a number on the gift God gave to us. There’s no way to value it. It costs much more than we could ever repay. It’s offered in grace, love, and compassion. But when you receive it – well, there’s no room for anything else, and no reason to want anything more. 
     As we give this Christmas, let’s think about how we have received God’s gift of Jesus Christ.

     There’s a limit on your credit cards. But God’s gift to you? Priceless. 

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