In 1994, a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Department of Education invited foreign teachers to come and assist them in Russia. Two American teachers who responded were assigned to teach in a large, government-run orphanage which housed 100 children who had been abused, abandoned, or neglected. Because it was close to Christmas, the teachers gathered the entire group together and, with the help of a translator, told them the Christmas story, which none of them had ever heard before. The children, and the staff members of the orphanage, too, listened in wonder as the teachers described how Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, found no room in the inn, and went to a stable, where Jesus was born; the teachers had everyone’s full attention as they described how angels appeared to shepherds in the field, how the shepherds then went to the stable and found the Holy Child lying in a manger, and how the Wise Men later came and gave Him costly gifts. When the teachers finished telling the nativity story, the children were given cardboard, paper, small pieces of cloth, and scissors and glue, and asked to make a cardboard stable and manger, and paper cutouts of a baby, which they were to place in the manger—in short, to make their own nativity scene.
One of the children, a six-year-old boy named Misha, followed directions very well— except he put two babies in the manger, one larger than the other. When one of the American teachers, with the help of the translator, asked why, Misha repeated the nativity story as he had just learned it, accurately including every detail. When he reached the point where Mary laid the Child in the manger, however, Misha created his own ending to the story. He said, “Baby Jesus looked at me and asked if I had a place to stay. I told him no, because I have no mama and no papa—so He told me I could stay with Him. I wanted to very much, but I knew I couldn’t because I had no gift to give Him. I wondered if there was anything I could give Him, and I thought, ‘Maybe I could keep Him warm.’ So I asked Jesus, ‘If I keep You warm, would that be a good enough gift?’ And Jesus told me, ‘If you keep Me warm, that will be the best gift anyone ever gave Me.’ So I got into the manger, and Jesus looked at me and told me I could stay with Him always.” The teacher and the translator were in tears when Misha finished his explanation, for a six-year-old boy who had never before heard the Gospel perfectly captured the meaning of Christmas and the Epiphany. Christmas celebrates Christ’s gift to us of Himself, and the Epiphany invites us in turn to give our gift to Him. What is our best gift to Jesus? One that comes from the warmth of our hearts.
Because we hear the Christmas story every year, it’s very easy for us to take it for granted or to forget how truly amazing it is. Our all-holy and all-powerful Creator loved us so much that, in spite of our sinful unworthiness, He sent His Son to become one of us; moreover, Jesus came to earth not as a great and mighty king, but as a humble child born into a poor, unknown family. In addition to the prophecies foretelling this otherwise unimaginable event, signs were present for those humble enough to see them—including the appearance of angels to simple, uneducated shepherds, and the manifestation of a star to wise men from the East searching for the truth. These simple and holy persons were willing to give of themselves, and that’s why they were found worthy to enter into the presence of the newborn Savior. King Herod the Great and his learned courtiers and religious advisors, however, selfishly thought only of themselves; they missed the signi- ficance of what was happening, and actually ended up opposing God’s plan of salvation.
When we respond to religion by taking an attitude of “What’s this going to cost me?,” or “What’s in it for me?,” we miss out on the blessings God has in store for us; when we instead ask ourselves “What can I give to Jesus?,” we allow God’s grace to work within us in a powerful and life-giving way. The beginning of a new year, and especially this Feast of the Epiphany, is a good time to think about what we might give to Jesus—in particular, to think as little Misha did: how can I keep Jesus warm? We know what the Lord Himself would say to us: “Whatever you do for the least of My brothers or sisters, you do for Me.” Therefore, we must look for ways to warm the hearts and spirits of persons suffering in an often emotionally cold and indifferent world.
For instance, When we adjust our schedules to spend time with someone who often feels lonely or forgotten, we’re giving a gift to Jesus. When we make a special effort to treat a poor or neglected or unappreciated person with gratitude and respect, we’re bearing witness to the true meaning of Christmas. When we, through our words, example, or influence, help a child learn about genuine love and truth, we’re accepting Jesus’ invitation to join Him in the manger. Feeding the hungry, welcoming a stranger, contributing to charity, doing a favor for someone in need, forgiving those who offend us, praying for our enemies, acting in a cheerful manner even when we don’t feel like it, treating others as we wish to be treated, practicing random acts of kindness, and respecting the dignity and feelings of everyone we meet, are all ways of warming the heart of Jesus and putting our faith into practice.
You and I are probably not called to go half way around the world to preach the Gospel, as the two American teachers did in Russia; instead, we’re called to make a difference by living out the Gospel here and now. Our humble and loving efforts to do this might very well help another person realize, as did a six-year-old Russian child, that he or she is a child of God and a brother or sister in Christ. Not only will that warm the heart of Jesus, but it will allow Him to say to us, as He did to Misha, “That is the best gift anyone ever gave to Me.”