Presence not Presents

Guest ColumnistCommunity News

by Marty Robertson

I have written the last two months about taking back Christmas, primarily focusing on spending less and giving more. The dollars spent on Christmas ($450 billion annually) are astronomical. It sometimes makes me wonder if they aren’t eclipsing the star that first led the magi to Jesus’ manger? But we don’t have to participate in the madness of this spending. We can break the cycle, but it will take conscious effort. Here we are in November and the rush is upon us. What else might we do to help reclaim Christmas for Jesus?

A catch phrase in the Advent Conspiracy ( movement is to “Give less presents and give more presence.” What exactly did Jesus give us on that first Christmas? It was himself. And while a good argument could be made that this is a great present, it was and is his presence that changed everything for the world. He spent 33 years with us on this earth giving of himself relationally. And he continues to do so today. It is Christ’s presence in our lives that brings us forgiveness, hope and it changes us. What might it look like if we were to give presence?

The holiday season is often filled with parties and gatherings that really do add to the presence of the season. I love our Christmas Eve service: the candles, the music, good friends, whoever the character is that Reed decides to dress up like… But it’s what happens around the service that remains with me throughout the year. A simple soup and bread dinner with friends afterward. A walk on the beach with family and friends earlier in the day. Being intentional about inviting others that may not feel very included in the larger picture of our community into our home during the season. These are easy activities that build up our church community, as well as reveal the presence of Jesus among us.

Another way to bring the presence of Christ back into Christmas is to introduce traditions that cause us to reflect more on the reality of Jesus’ birth and less on the gift giving and receiving. Get a group of friends together and fill a few shoeboxes for children around the world through the Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child project ( Many families have created meaningful Advent Jesse Trees where they read scripture together during the 25 days leading up to Christmas ( Making an Advent wreath and reading through scriptures in preparation for Christmas is another great tradition. We do this as a church and it only gets better when you deepen it at home ( Years ago, I made a cross from some scrap wood that holds the candles for our Advent wreath. A not-so-subtle reminder of where the joy of Christmas eventually takes us. We have celebrated Las Posadas with the Pereas and friends for close to fifteen years. It is a wonderful reminder of Christ’s infant entry into this world. The focus is so much more on celebrating Jesus’ humble birth as a community with not even a hint at gifts.

Christ’s presence, however, that first Christmas was much more than celebration with family and friends. It was incarnational. In the flesh for all of creation. How might we become the “in the flesh” representatives of Christ? Perhaps it is as I read in a book by Walter Wangerin: “Jesus with skin on him.” This pushes us further out of our comfort zones. Would you consider buying a cup of coffee or a meal for a homeless person and engaging him or her in a bit of conversation? How about bringing bags of homemade treats to the elderly at one of our local convalescent homes and taking the time to sit and talk? The idea is to be flesh and blood ambassadors for Jesus. It is certainly easier to just send our money to the Rescue Mission, but much more life changing for everyone involved if we put on Jesus’ skin and become present to the marginalized in our community. These type of activities have become our family favorites and have changed me the most.

Realistically speaking we will still be buying some gifts. Fair Trade purchases are a great alternative to traditional mall purchases. Fair Trade is a trading partnership that seeks sustainable development and greater equity for marginalized producers and workers throughout the world. There are dozens of Fair Trade options out there. One connected directly to Advent Conspiracy can be found at Trade As One ( This might be the place where Jesus would buy his chocolate Advent calendar!

The beautiful thing about all of this is that our presence becomes worship. Jesus is blessed in our focus on him and the people he came to save. The clutter and rush of shopping and spending are drowned out in the joy of doing the work of Jesus. Our time and availability become the gift of presence to those around us.