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November 20, 2011

Let the Christ child inspire your gift-giving This Christmas, when you think of the gifts you will give, seek to make them personal

By Regis J. Flaherty

CONTRIBUTOR

Ed, my sales manager, walked into my office as he did every morning to discuss the day’s activities. He wore a colorful sweater that I hadn’t seen before. I asked, “Ed is that a new sweater?”

“Not really, I’ve had it for a while,” he responded.

“It’s a great sweater,” I commented.

“Do you really like it?”

When I responded, “I do,” he pulled the sweater over his head and handed it to me.

“It’s yours,” he said.

I objected, “Ed, I can’t take your sweater.”

“Do you like it?” he asked, while continuing to extend the garment in my direction.

“Yes, but I can’t take your sweater; It’s yours.”

“You are not taking it from me. It is mine and I give it to you.”

I took the sweater and put it on, right there and then. It brought me comfort for the next 10 or 12 years until it was too worn to mend again.

Over those years, every time I put on that sweater, I would think of Ed and say a prayer for him. Even now I often recall his gift when putting on any sweater, even though the original is gone.

Season of gift-giving

We are now entering the Advent and Christmas seasons — for many people the time of buying, giving and receiving gifts. It is a most appropriate gesture by which we can imitate the great Gift-Giver. Our heavenly Father gave of himself when he sent his only begotten Son — the most worthy and generous gift ever given in the history of the created world.

It was given at a personal cost. St. Paul tells us that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2: 6-7). Without losing his divinity, he who is truly God became truly man. Jesus, in effect, set aside his divine garment only to bestow it upon you and me.

We received this divine gift in the waters of Baptism. Each baptized person becomes a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Cor 5:17). The gift of life in Christ continues to bless us throughout this life and opens to us the eternal life of heaven. Baptism marks the recipient with an indelible character (see CCC 1272). Unlike Ed’s sweater, God’s mercy never wears out. We can put on Christ everyday and the gift is renewed in us.

Ed’s generosity touched me deeply. God’s generosity should blow me and you away. Indeed we are given a gift that “neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal” (Mt 6:20). We can be draped with an eternity of blessedness with the Holy Trinity, when we accept and hold onto the great gift that God offers.

When we recognize the gift of God, it should give us pause to examine our gift-giving, and there is probably no better time than Advent and Christmas to do so.

Make it personal

Ed’s gift to me of a slightly used sweater was special because it was personal. The physical object was a sign of something deeper and more intimate. In giving the sweater, Ed gave something of himself. In his action there was a very human connection that mirrored something divine.

It reminds me of the lame beggar at the gate called Beautiful at the temple in Jerusalem (see Acts 2:1-10). Peter and John came to pray, and a beggar asked them for money. The beggar hoped for a few coins, something that would have been helpful to him in his need. I’m sure any number of people had given some money to the “beggar.”

Peter and John gave something more. First, they made a personal connection with the man. The Scripture says that the apostles “turned their gaze to him.” This encounter would be more than merely an exchange of money. It was personal. The apostles then gave him something much better than money. They gave the healing touch of God that was transformative. The lame man received a sacramental gift — the divine touched him through the human.

Poignantly the Scripture tells us that Peter took the lame man “by the right hand and raised him up” (Acts 3:7). The result? He, who was lame, began to leap and praise God (vs. 8). Isn’t that the essence of a truly blessed gift? Peter and John acted “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (vs. 6). This was not a financial transaction, but one of grace.

Dorothy Day

Let me tell you another story, this one about a photograph of Dorothy Day. It was given to me by a friend, Mike, because he knew that I found inspiration in the life and writings of the servant of God. Mike hadn’t bought the photo. He received it as a gift from someone else.

I placed the framed picture on the wall in my office at a location where I could see it whenever I looked up from my desk. Many a day it encouraged me to ask myself, “Am I giving all for God, as Dorothy Day did?” It also prompted me to ask for Dorothy’s intercession and to pray for Mike.

Sometime later a young woman came to me for advice. She was searching for direction in her life. She had a great concern for the social issues that challenge us, in particular care for the poor and for the environment. One day, as I prayed for her in my office, I looked up at Dorothy on my wall. I knew that photo would help that young woman. I sent it to her with a letter explaining how Dorothy served the poor as a calling from our Lord.

My gift of a gift given to me was a fruitful, Spirit-led act that greatly blessed my young friend. I’ve not yet hung anything else on that nail on my wall. When I look up now, I see an empty space that is actually filled with meaning. Dorothy Day no longer looks out at me, but that now empty space still causes me to examine myself, to ask Dorothy’s intercession, to pray for Mike who gave the portrait to me, and now to pray also for the young women to whom I gave it.

That gift has continued to gift and bless. Why? Because it involved personal, thoughtful, and prayerful giving and receiving. Ideally, our gifts should be very human and reflect the example of the divine.

Family examples

For years one of my daughters didn’t have any money to buy gifts. Instead, every Christmas she gave to me of herself. Sometimes her gift was time for us to sit on the couch together and watch a movie by our favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. At other times we went shopping together and she let me pick out a favorite food.

I can’t remember many of the physical objects I’ve received over the years but I will never forget those times with my daughter. They bonded us in ways that I would call holy. Even though now she could probably buy a gift for me, I hope she never does. I hope she will continue to gift me with that time together that brings us closer to each other and to God.

For years my wife’s family had a gag gift that was re-given to someone every year. It was the same gift but given to someone new by the person who had received it in the prior year. As the family grew, the options for recipients also increased.

It was all for fun, but the anticipation of who would receive it also added to the festivities. Even though it was just a gag gift, it was also a symbol of family and a life of shared memories.

It seems to me that such a practice has real potential for cementing family relationships. A humorous gift is good, but I think some religious gift, perhaps a work of art, travelling through the family is an option. Each year a family member would display it in their home and then pass it to someone else — sort of a religious Stanley Cup.

Remember the poor

When I worked for Catholic Charities my favorite time of the year was the Christmas season. One of my responsibilities was to connect donors with those in need.

It was always a great blessing to bring gifts to the poor. I remember one family in particular. A fire destroyed their residence along with all their belongings. In the week before Christmas I stopped at the apartment where the parents and four children were temporarily living.

In the living room I found a baby in a diaper sitting on the floor, two plastic chairs, a wellused artificial Christmas tree with nothing underneath it, and not much more. I handed the woman of the family a bag with some wrapped gifts and certificates for a local grocery store. The other three children came running from the kitchen to investigate while their mother thanked me.

I said, “Give me a minute; I have more.” I went back to the car and brought in a box and another bag, both filed with practical gifts that a family, which had lost all their material possessions, could use. The mom sank into a chair and wept tears of relief and gratitude. I wish everyone could witness scenes like this. It is hard not to be charitable when we meet poverty and need face to face.

Yes, there are greedy, selfish and unfeeling people in this world. We have met them, but I can attest to the pain of a parent who can’t provide for their children. I’ve seen them and talked with them.

Certainly some have caused their own problems and could have made better choices. Yet, I encourage you to give to these people anyway. In doing so, we imitate our Lord. Were we worthy to receive salvation? As Jesus gave to us, we should give generously to those in need.

Whom do you personally know that needs help? Giving through a charitable organization is a great good, but Jesus points us to oneon- one charity. It cost the Good Samaritan time, energy, as well as money, to care for the man he found on the roadside (see Lk 10:29-37).

Maybe the priest and the Levite, who passed by, planned to tell the police or some aid group about the incident at their next opportunity. It was, however, the Samaritan who got down off his donkey, washed and bandaged the man’s wounds, and brought him to safety.

Giving of time and personal attention raises gift-giving to a new level. Prayerfully consider if there is someone that you know who is in need — physical, emotional or spiritual. Ask yourself how you can bring the love of God to that person and then do it.

Also, there are many charitable organizations who know the needs in your community and who can make you aware of those needs. It is a blessing to know that you are buying something for a sevenyear- old girl or a 10-year-old boy, even if you never meet them. Although it is still giving through an intermediary, it makes the process more personal.

Gifting this year

Ideally the gifts we give and receive should birth something in the lives of the giver and the receiver. That gift that the shepherds found lying in a manger filled them with awe and led them to praise God.

This Christmas, when you think of the gifts you will give, seek to make them personal. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in your desire to give gifts that bless the other, build relationships, and honor God.

Flaherty is author of “God’s on the Phone: Stories of Grace in Action” (Servant, $14.99) and “The How-to-Book of Catholic Devotions,” (OSV, $13.95).

Things to remember

  • Ideally, our gifts should be very human and reflect the example of the divine.
  • Giving of time and personal attention raises gift-giving to a new level.
  • Consider giving of yourself such as time spent with a loved one doing something they would like to do.
  • Give to the poor
  • Prayerfully consider if there is someone that you know who is in need — physical, emotional or spiritual. Ask yourself how you can bring the love of God to that person and then do it.