Some years ago an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer featured this headline: “Appearance Counts When Wrapping Holiday Gifts.” Said one employee at a luxury goods store in San Antonio, Texas, “The biggest thing I’ve seen through the years is that the wrapping is just as important as what’s on the inside. You can take a $5 item and make it look like a million bucks.” Another person quoted in the article noted, “Packaging will make a whole lot of difference, and it will make the gift special.”
On the other hand, there are occasions when the lack of “proper” packaging sets a gift apart. Parents and grandparents do not feel offended at all when a child or grandchild gives a gift for Christmas or any special occasion that may lack style in appearance but is clearly given with love.
The “packaging” of Bethlehem may seem so inappropriate for the Messiah, God’s Son: a feeding trough for animals; dirty, smelly shepherds; and a humble peasant couple from a remote village “up north.” Many in Jesus’ day wondered how someone from such surroundings could possibly be the Messiah. Here too, however, the lack of appearance is what counts. That Jesus came to earth as he did conveys, literally, the depth of God’s love for us. He was willing to come down to our level because he knew there was no way for us to rise to his. The packaging of Bethlehem does not reflect the absence of love; on the contrary, it declares the greatest love the world has ever known.
This packaging also serves as a model for the way we are to respond to God’s gift. We do not have to “keep up appearances” in presenting ourselves to him. The father of the prodigal son was not repulsed in the least by the shabby, scruffy appearance of his wayward son. He loved him as he was—in spite of what he had done.
Nor is our Father offended when we come to him, sins and all. In fact, he did much more for us than kill a “fatted calf”; he gave his Son as the spotless Lamb to die in our place. Such love is not received by trying to “impress” the giver. The recipient can only offer humble thanks and seek never to forget the grace that has been shown him. Paul’s words say it so well: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Doug Redford is professor of biblical studies at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.