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 December 17, 2007   •   VOL. 45, NO. 21    •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Christmas is the right time
to give and receive gifts

Dear Friends in Christ,

Every year in these days before Christmas — this year being no exception — the radio, TV, and newspapers and magazines are filled with references to the holiday. A significant portion of what we hear or see or read concerns gift-giving. Surrounding that theme is a tremendous amount of advertising in all the media promising to eliminate the awful anxiety that, they insist, will go with the effort of selecting, purchasing and giving a gift.

To what degree those who compose the advertising copy are correct in their assessment of the pain that is caused by giving gifts at Christmas, I am no judge. But it seems sad to me that they have at least succeeded in characterizing the act negatively, as a custom that is for many of us more a source of distress than satisfaction. I say this because I believe that Christmas is just the right time to give and receive gifts.

Our annual remembrance of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ is the very “right-est” day for giving gifts. Why? Because the day is about a gift, the greatest of gifts: God the Father’s gift to us of his Only-Begotten Son. St. John gets the point perfectly: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16).

Giving a gift is always a symbolic act. A gift is a symbol of myself. I take part of my resources, my substance, and I use that to obtain something that will represent the relationship I feel for the person destined to receive my gift.

Sometimes my gift will bespeak my gratitude or my respect for another person, but the most awesome way of a gift to work is to show others that I love them. Such a gift is a symbol standing in for the gift of the giver’s love.

In the Incarnation and birth of Jesus, God the Father uses the very familiar language of gift-giving to show us the love in which we stand with him.

It is of the highest significance that God did not give us something but someone as his gift. Were his gift to have been a vessel of finest gold decorated with rare gems, that would have said a great deal about how much he treasures us. However, the Father gave us his Son, the fullness of his very self. In making Jesus his gift to us he was bringing into being the very thing a gift always tries to say.

When we give a gift we choose an object to stand for ourselves. The gift says: “I want to share part of myself with you.” In the Father’s gift of his Son he does not just say he wants to share himself with us, but he, in real truth, does share himself. For us to have the Father’s Son as our own is to have the Father, to own him and to be owned by him.

Seeing at least a little more clearly how Christmas is the Father’s giving himself to the human race in the gift of the Son helps us understand a little better, too, why the Son became a man — how his taking on our humanity was such an important part of God’s gift-giving.

In becoming a man God now has available all the forms of expression we use to express and receive love. He can speak to us in the language that we understand best. We express the gift of our love with audible words, visible looks, tangible gestures and — above all — in the physical flesh and blood deeds of our lives. This is how human beings express love.

It is the wonder of the Incarnation that God himself willed to use our own human language to express the gift of his eternal love.

I want to make one more point before I draw this reflection to a conclusion. We all know that getting a gift requires a response. Sometimes that’s as simple as a “thank you.”

However, gift-giving can work at a much more serious level. If the gift is unwanted because a relationship with the giver is undesirable, the gift has to be returned. If the gift has great significance, then to accept it is to accept the relationship which the gift symbolizes. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this is man giving a woman a ring.

To accept Jesus, to receive this gift from the Father, requires a gift from us in return. We have to reciprocate, and a batch of cookies or a gif card from Wal-Mart is, surely, not good enough. The marvel is that in giving us Jesus the Father has given us the capacity to give ourselves to him in return. In giving us his love he has given us the love he wants to get from us in return.

So, where are we? Back to thinking about the gifts you will give your wife or husband or the kids for Christmas. I don’t have any suggestions about what to get, but I do have a recommendation about how to give them.

In giving your gifts this Christmas never, ever, forget that especially in this holy season you are imitating the great Gift-giver, the Father who has given us his incarnate Son. While you give your gifts remember what you have received from him.

And, above all, when you come to Christmas Mass, and arrive at the moment for your Holy Communion, come forward with awe and reverence and hearts on fire with love and thanks, for you are receiving the very “right-est” gift that man or woman has ever yet received: God’s own self, in the flesh.

May all of you have the very merriest of Christmases, a time of great peace and joy in your homes. And please be sure to thank your priests for being the instruments through which God gives you his gift, life with him forever.

 

Previous "In His Light" Columns by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

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