Arts and Culture

Exchanging Gifts

THOUSANDS OF AMERICANS, who do not usually say grace before meals, did so before their Thanksgiving meal. If many are like me, they might have tried to mention a list of blessings they have received from God such as health, jobs, friends and other gifts and blessings. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. I just hope it does not suggest that the blessings mentioned exhaust the actual blessings and gifts that God has bestowed on us.

The truth is that there is no way that anyone can mention every blessing and gift received from God. In this column, I am trying to stimulate us to reflect on our relationship with God and see more deeply that the primary gift God has bestowed on us should move us to make an important gift to God. God’s gifting is constant. Pope Francis tells us that God’s name is Mercy. I think we could also call God: Gift-Giver.

When I think about the gifts and blessings God has bestowed on us, I immediately think of existence. God has created each of us from nothing. God freely brought us into existence and freely keeps us in existence. None of us has a right to be. When great thinkers have tried to explain why God is creating us, or why God keeps us in existence, the best they have been able to say is that God creates out of love. Love wants to share. Out of the billions and billions of possible human beings God has decided to create each of us.

The first gift that God has bestowed is our very existence. In my philosophy classes at St. John’s University, in order to impress upon the students how dependent we are, I say, “If my parents had not met, I would not be lecturing to you.” I could say, “If God did not love me, I would not be here lecturing to you.”

The other absolutely great gift that God has bestowed on us is to invite us into a love relationship. I am currently reading a science book and have learned from it that the universe is now dated as over 13 billion years old. It is mind-boggling that God, Who has been bringing the universe into existence for 13 billion years, is so in love with human beings that God invites us into an intimate love relationship.

God is a gift-giver. We have been created in the image of God. That means, I believe, that we are called to be gift-givers. The primary gift God gives us is God. We should imitate God and give ourselves to God. It strikes me that all that I have written about God and us, and the act of gift-giving, is acted out in a Eucharist.

The process of exchanging gifts with God at a Eucharist begins with God inviting us to the Eucharist. I believe it is literally true that God invites us to a Eucharist. If our attendance at a Eucharist is participating in a prayer, then we are present through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit’s presence, any prayer is impossible. We begin our prayer by admitting that we are sinners and asking for God’s pardon. Then we listen to God’s Word, which is a gift from God. In response to that Word, we offer to God the gift of ourselves, represented by bread and wine. When the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ, the Father offers us the Risen Lord as our food for the journey of life.

The entire Eucharist is an ongoing exchange of gifts between God and us. That exchanging does not end with the Eucharist. Our lives should be an ongoing exchange. What a beautiful ideal it is that we should live as a gift – a gift to God and to other human beings. It may seem like an impossible ideal. It would be impossible without God’s help, without the Holy Spirit being present to us at every moment.

Years ago, Jacques Maritain, reflecting philosophically on the mystery of the human person, wrote:

“Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depth of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of the intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of being alive.

“Thus subjectivity reveals itself as ‘self-mastery for self-giving…by spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.” (quoted from W. Norris Clarke’s “Person and Being,” p. 77).

I believe that is the vocation and goal of every person: “spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.”

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).