Every gift is, more or less, a part or extension of ourselves. One cannot give what one does not have. Thus, unless there is also a certain “giving up” or “giving away,” it seems the gift is less than complete. Giving “with strings attached” is always felt to be an incomplete or even insincere “gift,” like baking cookies for a friend and eating half of them on the way to her house.
When it comes to the Lord, of course, we can give Him nothing that He does not first give us. Yet because in becoming incarnate, Jesus gives Himself up to us completely; grace makes it is possible for us to give Him to others. Christmas of all times is the best time to remember how giving became such a part of Christmas. There is no gift as precious as Jesus and, therefore, no gift we can give to others that can be more enduring, more loving than to give the gift of Christ. And Christ is a gift anyone and everyone can give, regardless of age, position or state of health or wealth.
The gift of Christ is, of course, a gift of love, not money. It is the gift the Father gave us in giving us His Son, with the full cooperation of the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s Gospel reminds us. Luke, who, according to tradition was a physician, is naturally sensitive to the circumstances and details surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Christ. His ear is well attuned to the origins of life.
Christmas is a time that draws us to new life in the joy that is often found more in the fantasies of children than the fears and anxieties of adults. Our gift of time and attention, however, to the seeming inanities of children’s dreams is also a way for us to lose our serious, routinized, propped up selves in the wonder of the world that we do not create or control so much as we are led to believe we do and must. Letting ourselves get lost in the wonder and surprise of the unopened present of the child in each other yet to be born, the unformed future, the uncontrolled “other” is a way of letting Christ be born again into the world. We may give Him a more fitting welcome than the circumstances facing Mary and Joseph in their search for a place in which to spend the first Christmas.
At the other end of life’s spectrum are those who this Christmas may feel far away from the childhood days their memories still hold so dear. Confined to a hospital or care facility that can only vaguely resemble home, with close family no longer near, their loneliness could be unbearable were it not for those who will choose to see in them the Christ who Himself on earth so often felt distant from His heavenly home. Personal presence to any such person is so much more precious than a gift certificate, a new fragrance or even a string of pearls. Gifts of the heart speak deeper than any mere token that can be bought, wrapped and dispatched.
Perhaps the most precious gift of all, however, is the gift of forgiveness, giving up on defending a tired grudge or nurturing an old snub. Longer than the many miles Mary traveled to visit her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, would be the short hop to pick up a phone or pen a brief note to bury the rusted hatchet once and for all. Who will have the courage to make the first move? That would be a true friend, of course, and a real gift of Christ.
In a word, the Word made Flesh can only be born into our lives with the consent of a wide-open, faithful heart – as it was with Mary, so with us now as we remember the first Christmas. We can give the world Christ – the gift it really needs – or something else that will be forgotten when the used tree is tossed or the last late card torn open.
Christ can indeed come again into our lives if we live His love in giving Him to one another. All we need do is let Him echo in us. For, as the beautiful verses of Gerard Manley Hopkins (“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”) sing:
“…the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”