When it comes to gift-giving, I am not as creative or inspired as my wife. She is an artist with gifts: they are inventive and, most importantly, meaningful to the people she gives them to. I, on the other hand, am often stumped by the mere prospect of buying a gift.
Even so, I am aware of how deeply the idea of ‘the gift’ is engrained in the Catholic faith—and that spurs me on to do better. I am not using the term gift here in a trivial sense. I’m not referring to the kinds of gifts that just contribute to the gradual accumulation of ‘stuff’ in our lives, stuff that is eventually forgotten about, discarded or donated in the process of spring cleaning.
In the deepest possible sense, though, the whole of creation—from our own lives to the lives of every living and non-living thing—can be understood as a gift.
This insight is central to the theology of the body so famously articulated by Pope John Paul II, who said that ‘creation constitutes the fundamental and original gift.’ The very fact that God creates ‘from nothing’ (ex nihilo) reveals this: there is no obligation on God’s part, no manipulation, nothing in him that requires creation. Because of this, our own lives can be understood as the ultimate gifts. God didn’t have to, but he made us anyway. Why? For the sheer love of it.
When Genesis says that ‘God saw that it was good’ (1:9), what this points to, Pope John Paul II said, is that creation has its origin in love: ‘only love, in fact, gives rise to the good and is well pleased with the good.’ It is a liberating idea to come to terms with, and we can spend our whole lives doing just that.
Our own lives can be understood as the ultimate gifts. God didn’t have to, but he made us anyway. Why? For the sheer
love of it.
This sense of life’s giftedness is only heightened as we approach Christmas. When God’s creation fell into disrepair and decay, when the gift of life became tarnished by humanity’s dysfunction and rebelliousness, God’s response was to keep giving. The mystery of the incarnation of Christ is the mystery of the God who, though he had no obligation to, took on human nature and saved creation from within.
He met us, quite literally, face to face, because that is what love does.
When we examine the stories of St Nick—or St Nicholas of Myra, as he is more formally known—we might notice something curious. All of these stories come down to us as legends, but if we pay attention, they can lead us deeper into this Christian understanding of ‘the gift’.
There are three particularly well known stories associated with St Nick, although many more exist. One recounts the time the good bishop of Myra gave a bag of gold to three girls who were about to be sold into prostitution, providing them with enough money to live free and get married instead; another tells how he broke three military generals out of prison; and yet another of how he resurrected three boys who had been killed and pickled in a barrel by a butcher.
The last thing any of these ‘gifts’ were was trivial. Without fail, each of them results in the giving of life and freedom to people who desperately needed it. It was the kind of giving that mirrored Christ’s own gift of himself, and the original gift of creation before that.
There’s an unexpectedness to them too, a surprise. Just when all hope seems lost, someone steps in—someone they may have had no knowledge of or relation to—and restores to them what they thought was gone forever. It is pure gift, given by someone who believes in the God who is, in his very essence, a Giver.
St Nick’s generosity results in the giving of life and freedom to people who desperately needed it. It was the kind of giving that mirrored Christ’s own gift of himself, and the original gift of creation before that.
Tragically, not everyone believes their life is a gift. Not everyone has experienced the love that created them and saved them. If we truly want to give in the spirit of St Nick—and, more importantly, the God he loved—maybe we can think about whether we are bringing faith, life, hope and even freedom this Christmas. Or is it just more stuff?
As one way to bring life, hope and freedom to people this Christmas and Advent, why not donate generously to one of the many Catholic agencies and organisations serving those in our communities and our world who are most vulnerable and in need of our generous, practical assistance. Here are just a few to consider:
Banner image: St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, secretly gives dowries to three poor girls, detail of miniature from the Book of Hours of Simon de Varie, illuminated by Master of Jean Rolin II (1440–1465). (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)
Melbourne Catholic05 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic05 December 2023