Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

Last night I was thinking about gift giving and how sometimes people focus too much on the giving of gifts at Christmas, so much so that the reason for the season is missed. I know a couple who do not give their children gifts for Christmas, but rather bake a birthday cake and sing "happy birthday" to Jesus. One can easily see how laudible this is to place an emphasis on Christmas being about the birthday of Jesus. One of the things that struck me, though, last night, is that the giving of gifts is not in itself wrong. In fact, it is a very good thing to do and can be an excellent reminder of the gift that was given us in Christ. This morning at mass, I surprised to hear almost the same thing from my guardian (the priest who is in charge of running a friary), who in his homily specifically mentioned this very aspect of Christmas. His words, though I paraphrase, were Christmas is about giving gifts and receiving gifts, and obviously the most important gift we can receive is the gift that God has given us in Jesus. Just as in giving gifts among people, to accept a gift is in some way to accpet the giver. Likewise Jesus tells us "Whoever accepts me, accepts the one who sent me." So, for us to accept the gift of Jesus is for us to accept God the Father into our lives.

At the breakfast table after mass, discussion arose about the North End of Boston and how, back in the day, none of the Italian immigrants would accept a basket of food from the parish. What's more, the city had set up a bureau in the neighborhood to make it easier for people to ask for the city's assistance, be it monetary or in some kind of service. No one came despite the fact that plenty of people could have used the help.

The message here is that it takes humility to receive a gift, to take a handout, and yet isn't that what grace is? Isn't it a gift? In fact, the Greek word for gift is the same as grace, "charis" (from which "charism" also derives). So, in receiving the gift of God, Jesus, do we not, in some way, need to admit that we are in need, to say, "I have sinned, and I need your mercy," or "I am weak and cannot do it alone"?

Perhaps we often are weary of admitting that we are in need of help because of the numerous people who try to take advantage of our weaknesses. They are those who are ready to give gifts, but they have their hidden motives for giving. Some try to solicit a response. They give expecting to receive. Others give gifts in order to cover up their abusive behavior. They give a gift as a way to obtain forgiveness without amending their ways, only so that they can continue to take advatage and further abuse the other person. (Certainly we may not all have these motives as our primary motives, but if we are attentive enough to ourselves, we may find these traces mixed in with our good intentions too.) So, knowing how gifts can sometimes be dangerous things, linking us with the giver, obliging us in some way, we tend to avoid accepting gifts from someone until we know for certain that they do not have hidden motives.

Yet God's motives for giving us the gift of His Son, the gift of His mercy, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of His very Life, are anything but hidden. (Or if they are "hidden" maybe it is due to our image of God, which has been blurred by our sins.) God, in giving us the gift of Jesus looked to do in a universal and definitive way the same thing he did for the people of Israel in a particular and partial way: liberate us and make a convenant with us (Thanks, Fr. Elberti - my sacraments professor).

For freedom Christ set us free so that we might not turn back to the yoke of slavery which is sin (cfr Gal 6:1). Through his pasqual mystery, Christ set us free from sin by obtaining the remission of sin (not just its forgiveness - sorry Luther - God restores His imagine in man, so that man, though wounded by original sin, is capable of responding to God in freedom. The very notion of grace - gift - requires that the other be disposed to receive it and free to choose to receive it or not. Anything else would mean God imposes grace on some and not on others, making God, not only unjust, but also a tyrannt who does not love but uses force to carry out His will). In this we have been freed, that is if we accept the gift of the pasqual mystery and of Jesus's dying and rising for us. But not only this. Just like after the first passover "pasch", God led his people so as to give them the law, ie make a covenant with them, God also gave his "new" law to His people after Christ's pasch (Not that it was something new per se but "new" in its way of being transmitted). Pentecost was the Jewish festival of weeks that not only celebrated the first fruits of the earth (man...! Christ is the First Fruit of the Resurrection... a true "fruit" of the earth... a truth realized by the coming of the HS on Pentecost) but also the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Jeremiah tells us "The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (31:31-33) The day of Pentecost for the Church is the day that this law was written on the hearts of the apostles so that they could understand the mystery Christ had revealed to them and proclaim it to others. This is the new covenant, God giving us His Spirit so that we might live for Him, free from sin, to grow in charity.

And God doesn't hide His cards. He wants for us, freedom from sin so that He can make us His sons. And not jus this. He wishes to give us new life and bless us with his overwhelming goodness. And not just in this life. He wants to save us definitively, showing Himself to be Lover of Mankind, redeeming man even from the now-a-days seemingly final loss of the human person, physical death (Christians know that the real final loss of the person is spiritual death in unrepented mortal sin... ie completely turning away from God), a redemption that will follow in the footsteps of the redeemer, Jesus Christ, resulting in the resurrection from the dead and life everlasting for the just (repentant sinners) and the second death, hell, for the unjust (unrepentant sinners).

There, the cards are on the table. God does not offer us His gift of His Son to dupe us into slavery, but to lead us into freedom and into holiness of life that will lead to intimate union with Him and our fellow man, to holiness of life, and to life everlasting in heaven. The gift of the giver is the gift of the giver Himself. In such a light we need not be afraid.

Merry Christmas, and by the way, don't forget to unwrap the gift god has given you. You won't need to return it or send it back, but only use it wisely and give God glory and thanks for giving you Himself.

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