Gift Exchange

by Kathy Olenik Henry

The days of Advent are winding down, and soon we will gather with family and friends to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity. After all the frenzy that comes with the weeks leading to Christmas, Christian churches will be filled with young and old dressed in their finest, gathered to worship the babe in the manger, Emmanuel.

The word Christmas is derived from the Greek Christos—anointed one—and the Latin Missa—to send. In other words, the anointed one is sent, the divine to the worldly. We celebrate the Incarnation; God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us. defines Christmas as “the annual festival of the Christian church commemorating the birth of Jesus: celebrated on December 25 and now generally observed as a legal holiday and an occasion for exchanging gifts.” Well, sort of . . . I suppose.

Is it really just a gift exchange? We may feel a bit conflicted with the distortion of religious beliefs by the typical holiday extravaganza. Have we forgotten that Christmas is not just a giant shopping spree and opportunity for overindulgence? Nonetheless, regardless of our beliefs and practices during the rest of the year, many will take time on this one day to enter a church and pause to reflect on the Christmas story. We hunger for something more. Deep down we know the purpose for this season lies there in the straw.

What is it we come looking for within the walls of the sanctuary? What is so important about this event that we prepare with such energy, misguided or otherwise?

To simply say that love is at the heart of it would be insufficient. Indeed much of our Christmas busy-ness involves some expression of love. We exchange gifts. We send greetings. We spend time together. We make an effort to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves. We look for opportunities to heal damaged or broken relationships. We remember those we have lost.

Yet the love at the heart of this feast is more than we can possibly imagine. The love we seek is the indescribable love God has for all humankind, the reason God sent a redeemer to bring us back to where we belong. It is agape—unselfish, self-sacrificing love without strings or implications. It is a love with no memory of past mistakes.

We yearn for something beyond what we are humanly capable of giving or receiving. Our restless spirits seek some way to grasp at something we can only find in the divine. And so we come to church to rest quietly in the presence of that which we seek.

When we gather to offer ourselves in worship, God sees our hearts longing to receive the greatest gift of all. Regardless of the intensity of our religious faith or the amount of preparation we have done, we humbly acknowledge that we are all the same, restless souls in need of a God who loves us unconditionally.

A blessed, peace-filled, Spirit-filled Christmas to all!

Kathy Olenik Henry

Kathy Olenik Henry

Kathy Olenik Henry is a published author with Loyola Press.

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In The Shepherd’s Story, children will discover the true meaning of Christmas as told through a classic and beloved rhyme scheme. Resources to accompany this beautifully illustrated book are available at, including an activity pack with a maze, a coloring page, Christmas cards to share, and more.