A favorite Christmas hymn in our home is the carol “What Shall We Give?” Originally a Catalan song called “El Noi De La Mare” (The Child of the Mother), the song was popularized with an American audience a decade ago when it was arranged by Mack Wilburg and performed by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. The lyrics ask one simple question: What gift can we offer to Jesus?
What shall we give to the Babe in the manger,
What shall we offer the Child in the stall?
Incense and spices and gold we’ve got plenty;
Are these the gifts for the King of us all?
What shall we give to the Boy in the temple,
What shall we offer the Man by the sea?
Palms at His feet and hosannas uprising;
Are these for Him who will carry the tree?
What shall we give to the Lamb who was offered,
Rising the third day and shedding His love?
Tears for His mercy we’ll weep at the manger,
Bathing the Infant come down from above.
In a music video for this arrangement of the song, three modern-day wise men—a father and his two teenage sons, go about an evening offering gifts of service, both on their own and then together, before returning home to their family to play the part of the three wise men in a live nativity.
Many beloved Christmas stories, both fictional and historical alike, tell of gifts given to the Christ child—the wise men who came from the east bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh; the little drummer boy who played his best for the baby king; James Stewart as Mr. Krueger bearing the humble gift of his whole heart. It is common as well for Christians to speak at Christmastime of what gifts we can offer to the King of us all.
During his mortal ministry, the Savior spoke often not of what His followers could give but of what they should give up. The most prominent example is the story of the rich young ruler, whom Jesus told to give up his wealth to follow Him.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)
Perhaps some Christians believe they would have been more committed than that young ruler was. It was just stuff, after all, and what is stuff compared to eternal life? But Jesus asked His followers to be willing to give up even more.
Now large crowds were traveling with him, and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27)
He called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)
Jesus asked his followers to give up their worldly possessions and follow Him. He told them that they must be willing to give up everything they have in order to become His disciples. This included their wealth, their loved ones, and even their own lives. Jesus also asked his followers to give up their pride, their ego, and their self-centeredness and to instead focus on serving others and living a life of humility, compassion, and submission to the will of God.
As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland pointed out, the Lord Jesus Christ is not an easy master:
And what of those who just want to look at sin or touch it from a distance? Jesus said with a flash, if your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hand offends you, cut it off. “I came not to [bring] peace, but a sword,” He warned those who thought He spoke only soothing platitudes. No wonder that, sermon after sermon, the local communities “pray[ed] Him to depart out of their coasts.” No wonder, miracle after miracle, His power was attributed not to God but to the devil. It is obvious that the bumper sticker question “What would Jesus do?” will not always bring a popular response.
Many of my Christian friends rightly believe in a God who asks us to give to the poor, to care for the earth, to speak kindly to our neighbors, to reject racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. Yet, many cannot believe in a God that asks hard things of them, unpopular things, countercultural things. What we’re asked to give up isn’t generally family, or our homes, or our stuff. It’s our ideas. Christ wants us to be able to give up our contemporary ideas about what a loving God would ask of us or want from us or want for us.
On the surface, that sounds much easier than rejecting our family members, selling our possessions, or sacrificing our lives. But in practice, it appears to be much harder, as many Latter-day Saints are increasingly struggling with the ways in which church doctrine conflicts with popular ideas of morality, stating that “I cannot believe in a God who would ask _____ of His daughters and sons.”
I believe this Christmas, the gift we can give to our Savior, is a willingness to believe in whatever God might ask of us and a willingness to give up those beliefs that distance us from Him. I believe He wants us to give up our ideas about romantic love. He wants us to give up our ideas about when we need and need not wear the temple garment. He wants us to give up our ideas about how we should be spending our time and money. About church policies that we might not like. About the roles women and men play in the Church and in the home, and in society. He wants us to give up our ideas about what is most important in life.
We are promised that when we reject worldly ideas, we are better able to follow our Savior. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught:
God asks us now to give up only those things which, if clung to, will destroy us! My friends, there are footprints to follow where we must go—made not by a leader who said, safely from the sidelines, “Go thither,” but by a leader who said, “Come, follow me.”… And when we tear ourselves free from the entanglements of the world, are we promised a religion of repose or an Eden of ease? No! We are promised tears and trials and toil! But we are also promised final triumph, the mere contemplation of which tingles one’s soul.
That triumph, the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, offers us the opportunity to have a personal relationship with God and to experience the promise of eternal life. So as we celebrate Christmas, let our gift be to give up what keeps us from that precious promise.
In the words of President Thomas S. Monsoon, “It is well to remember that he who gives money gives much; he who gives time gives more, but he who gives of himself gives all. Let this be a description of our Christmas gifts.”