It's just a few shopping days until Christmas. If you are like my mother-in-law, all your Christmas shopping is done and dusted, complete with bows, all prior to roasting your turkey for Thanksgiving. If you are like me...well, thank God and Jeff Bezos for two-day shipping.
Gift-giving is at the heart of the modern, American capitalism-infused conception of the Christmas season. Black Friday prompts retailers to get their bottom lines "in the black" before the close of the calendar year. And office "Secret Santas" or "White Elephants" prods us ever further into the consumerism that fuels our culture.
But, it need not be so. For gift-giving is also at the heart of the Christian conception of the Christmas season; it is just that the gifts Christians ought to be focused on have nothing to do with the GDP.
Let me start at the beginning...like way in the beginning, like the "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," kind of beginning. The Christian idea of God as Trinity shows God as completely satisfied in Godself. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were, are, and will be eternally in an intimately loving relationship with one another, without the need of any other. And yet, when we look around, we find that there is another; there is us. There is the earth, the cosmos, and all of humanity who are neither God nor part of God. But if God had no need of us, no need of the universe, why bother? Why is there anything here outside of God?
Quite simply, because of the gift.
There is nothing about God or the universe that required God to create, nothing about God or the universe that forced God to act. We, humans, are not entitled to our existence, for how could we be entitled to anything prior to our existing? Rather, in God's uttering, "Let there be…" God simply gave, simply bestowed existence on the universe. Creation's contingency shows it as fundamentally a gracious gift from God.
This leads to the inverse of a common Christmas quip, "What do you give the one who has everything?" Well, what do you give the one who has nothing, literally no-thing...as in, doesn't even have existence? The first place to start is with existence itself. There is no prior gift than our very existence...for any other possible gift is predicated on our existence; just try to give a carrot to a unicorn. God's bringing the universe into existence out of nothing is the first gift to the universe, and us along with it.
Yet, gift-giving creates a dynamic between a giver and a receiver. In receiving a gift as indeed a gift, and not some entitlement, the receiver incurs a debt. Now, hold on, not some debt like a monetary debt. Quid pro quos are all over the news these days (I'm sure Latin teachers everywhere are at least in part thrilled by how much of this language splashes across the headlines). But one does not give a gift to get something else; that's not a gift, that's a wage or a payment.
The gift-giver freely gives and expects or desires nothing in return. Yet, not from the side of the giver, but from the side of the receiver does it arise that something is owed. And the proper response to a gift is gratitude. This is why parents tell their kids when the kids are given a gift, "What do you say?" The child says, "Thanks." Not because the giver demands it, that's again a wage, not a gift, but because the nature of gift requires it. In giving thanks, in offering gratitude, the receiver acknowledges the gift as a gift and not as a wage or an entitlement.
My paycheck comes on alternating Fridays; that's my wage. I do not write a thank you note to my boss every other Friday. I'm owed it; it's in my contract. Gifts, however, are not entitlements. We don't thank people for giving us our due; we thank them for giving us what we are not due. And there is an appropriate proportionality to the intensity of our gratitude relative to the magnitude of the gift given. We are, and ought to be, more grateful for bigger things. When I'm at a Christmas party, and someone says, "Here, have a candy cane!" I should say, "Thanks!" When my grandma sends me a check for Christmas, I should write a thank you note. Not because the giver demands it, but because it is appropriate to the magnitude of the gift.
But what has God given us? Life itself! Our very existence! My expression of gratitude for my very life and existence should far outstrip the note I send to my grandma. The gratitude we ought to offer back to God is immense! Nothing less than the totality of our lives could be an apt thank you note to God. We owe God everything, not because God demands it, but because our very existence demands it. Our very existence as gift requires that the measure of our gratitude to God is the totality of our lives.
But if the minimum is everything, then anything less than everything isn't even the bare minimum response to this gift. Anything less than total gratitude is inadequate. Now, I'll only speak for myself here, but I have not lived the totality of my life with complete gratitude to God. I just haven't. I've lived an entitled life. I've lived as if God owed me my life. I've lived as if my life, health, prosperity, etc., were either all my doing or were due to God's giving me what I deserve. I have not been completely grateful to God.
This is a quandary I find myself in. Only a life of total gratitude is a worthy response to God for God's gift of existence, but I have already not been totally grateful, and so no matter how grateful I am from here on out, my gratitude still won't be proportionate to the gift I have been given.
But here, to me, is where the beauty of God's second gift glows ever brighter in these dark winter days. Not only has God given me my existence, but God has also given me the thank you note as well, and this is Jesus Christ.
Christ is God from God, Light from Light, of one Being with the Father, yes. But, Jesus Christ is also a human being, of one being with us humans. That is what is kicked off with the little baby in the manger. Christ's incarnation, his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification is one big thank you note, one big act of thanksgiving, one big act of gratitude. In fact, because Christ is God, he has the infinite resources to thank the giver of the gift of existence. But because Christ is a human, he offers this infinite response of gratitude as a human being, as one of us. We, then, when we are incorporated into Christ, are joined in Christ's act of gratitude. We can finally respond to the gift of our existence in gratitude because God has done it for us.
There is a great line from 1 Chronicles that is part of some Eucharistic liturgies: "All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own have we given you." The fusion of divinity and humanity, the mystery that is at the heart of this season, provides the means by which we in Christ can offer the gratitude to God that is worthy of the gift God has given us.
The gift-giving that is at the core of this season is actually far more cosmic, far more weighty, than the ones balancing the books at Amazon or Walmart. So, amidst the wrapping paper and ribbons, amidst the parties and treats, amidst the stocking stuffers and decorations, let us thank God for the gift of our lives, our very existence, and let us only in Christ, God Incarnate, do so fully. Amen.