One of my favorite Christmas traditions is to re-read "In the Bleak Midwinter," a poem by Christina Rossetti (the sister of famous pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The poem is so lovely that it has been set to various musical arrangements since Rossetti wrote it in the late 19th century. The most recent musical recording is by Annie Lennox (yes, that Annie Lennox), and as a fan of both Rossetti and Lennox, I must admit, I'm thrilled with the result.

Rossetti's poem has much to teach us about the overflowing nature of a loving God and the honor of worshiping him with the gifts that are most essential to our very being, to the selves God created us to be.

Yet we have a tendency—especially as women, I think—to recognize the gifts of others more readily than we recognize our own gifts. Likewise, it is also easier sometimes to value the gifts others are blessed with more than our own.

I remember one Christmas afternoon going to visit the home of a classmate and finding that her parents had spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on her presents (and that was many years ago). It was hard at age 13 not to be jealous of those gifts, even though just that morning, I'd been exceedingly excited about my own. I read somewhere once that "comparison is the thief of joy," words that explain perfectly what happened that day and, perhaps, far too many other days in our lives.

Similarly, throughout life, not just on Christmas morning, we tend to compare our gifts. We compare our own performance in school with that of our siblings. We compare our successes at work with those of our colleagues. We compare our accomplishments and our cars and our homes and our lawns and our weight and our wrinkles and our children and grandchildren with those of our friends and neighbors.

Even within the church body, it is hard not to compare the gifts God has blessed us with to those he has given others. This tendency toward false comparison—again, a tendency that seems more prominent among women—is one aspect of the darkness and confusion of this fallen world, the image Rossetti's poem opens with. Poor as we are on our own, we find ourselves, in our fallenness, in that very same midwinter bleakness, a world frosty, cold, and hard as iron.

Caught in this world of deadness, we have no gifts to give—that is, until heaven opens up and pours out upon us its gift of the Lord Jesus Christ.

A friend of mine, a Rossetti scholar, tells me that Rossetti, who was a high church Anglican, volunteered for many years at a Christian facility that helped prostitutes transition out of that trade into regular work and life. My friend suggests that Rossetti's efforts in redeeming the lives of these "poor" women who had so little to give is reflected in this question in the poem:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?

Yet, poor as we are, our God is of such an abundant nature, the poem says, that even "heaven cannot hold" him. So God cannot help but give out of himself, out of his overflowing nature. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. But that is not all: out of his abundance, God gives to us the gifts that we are to give here and now.

Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12 that the gifts distributed to those in the body are the gifts of God's choosing, not ours. We are who God created us to be, and God wants us to give out of who we are, just as he gives to us out of himself. It's as simple as these lines in the poem:

If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

The most appropriate gift to the Christ child—indeed, the risen Christ—is the gift of our selves, the gift of who we are in Christ, who God created us to be. The shepherd gives what he has; the wise man gives of himself; Mary's gift is in fulfilling the role God chose for her.

What gifts has God given you to offer to the Christ?