During these liturgical feasts of Christmas, the Holy Family, and Epiphany, we celebrate the giving and receiving of gifts. There are the physical gifts around our Christmas trees that we give to each other; there are the spiritual gifts of presence and prayer that we share; and most of all, there is the gift of God in human flesh for the salvation of us all.
God gives himself to us! That is an incredible, extraordinary, marvelous, and life-changing gift which we receive if we allow our hearts to be open to his coming, but it is also a gift which begs the perennial human question in response to this action of divine mercy,
“What can I possibly give to God in return?”
So often I feel like the old shepherd in the film The Nativity Story who feels that he has no gift to bring to God and to others. He says this to Mary and Joseph, who are warming themselves by the fire he had offered to them on their way to Bethlehem because they seemed cold. While they are sitting by the fire, Mary says to the shepherd, “I will tell our child about you. About your kindness.” The shepherd replies, “My father told me a long time ago that we are all given something. A gift. Your gift is what you carry inside.” Mary then asks him, “What was your gift?” The shepherd says, “Nothing. Nothing but the hope of waiting for one.”
I would say that many of us feel similarly. Growing up, we are frequently asked by others questions like these: “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” “How do you want to use your gifts?” “What will you do to make a difference in this world?”
Sometimes we have an idea of what we would like to do with our lives, so we say what that might be. But that vision often changes with our circumstances, and by the time our student lives are over, and we are working to make a living, sometimes we wonder, “How did I get here?” “What I have missed?” “Where am I really going?” “This is not what I had planned.” “Am I really making a difference in this big world?” We can feel small and poor because the world can be a lonely and confusing place. The gifts that we thought we had don’t seem to be massively impacting the world, we don’t feel fulfilled in giving of ourselves to our daily labors, we’re working in ways that don’t make use of our gifts because we’re struggling just to scrape by, or we’re still searching for our gifts.
I remember during one year in high school when I was on a retreat, my small group leader asked the members of our group to make a list of ten gifts that we have. I thought about it and wrote down two or three, which seemed inconsequential to me and not of much use. Then tears started to form in my eyes because I couldn’t think of any more gifts to write down. I felt so small and poor in comparison to others around me. I could only hope that I was wrong and wait for someone to tell me how immeasurably blessed I am and what a difference I can make in this world. I didn’t know it then, but I had to understand first what “gift” really is and what “making a difference” means.
When someone does tell us about a gift that we have, which we did not initially recognize in ourselves, it is great news to us – just like when the angel appears to the old shepherd and announces to him the great gift of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. When we receive news of such a gift, we are taken aback, an awareness is awakened in us, and we go to seek out what this great gift is and how we might share it. When we find it and touch it, we are surprised by joy, and we express thanksgiving by sharing it with others.
And so, in The Nativity Story, the old shepherd travels to the stable in Bethlehem to see what this gift is that he almost despaired of waiting for in thinking that he had nothing to give. When he approaches Mary cradling the infant Jesus, he kneels down and looks at the newborn Jesus with amazement. He then slowly reaches out to touch Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to do so. He seems too good to be true. And why would he want to give himself to me, a poor, lowly shepherd with no gifts to give in return.
As Christina Rossetti writes in her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,”
“What can I give Him, poor as I am?”
There are people who can give their property as shelter – a stable for animals that the Holy Family uses – and there are those like the magi who can give gold, frankincense, and myrrh out of their wealth. But what can poor, lowly shepherds give? They don’t seem to have anything of real value to give to such an extraordinary person – God made flesh in love for us. The old shepherd withdraws his trembling hand, but he continues to gaze in wonder at this newborn child, this indescribable gift.
Mary, however, turns to the old shepherd and holds Jesus toward him, saying,
“He is for all mankind.”
Encouraged by these words, the shepherd then slowly reaches out his hand again to touch the infant Jesus.
When he finally touches Jesus, the shepherd is overcome with emotion and closes his eyes. Mary then says to the shepherd,
“We are each given a gift.”
The old shepherd’s eyes widen with realization. It’s as if Mary is saying to him, “Touch him. He is your gift. He is what you carry inside. Touch him, open your heart, and he is yours!” This infant Jesus is a gift for all human beings, including the old shepherd himself. We are each given the profound gift of love, God in the flesh, become one of us and who shares in our suffering and in our joy. That is the gift that we carry in our hearts – love himself.
Thus, this Christmas event radically transforms our understanding of “gift” and of “making a difference.” Our epiphany is this: His striking manifestation to us as true God in true human flesh reveals to us that our sinful humanity is not worthless. He loves us! He has mercy on us! He is one of us! This gift of Jesus leads us to recognize how we might share that gift of love with others. The old shepherd, even when he thought he had nothing to give, had the gift of love: he gave to the Holy Family kindness, warmth, comfort, and friendship, even though he was just a stranger on the road. Even though he may have felt cold and empty, he still carried the little flame of hope inside. The gift of Jesus helped him to recognize the value and purpose of his own life. Life is not just about survival. It is so much more than that. Love makes the difference. Talents that we have may be gifts, but they will remain just abilities if not given to others in love. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7,
They are gifts because they are not our own; they are meant to be shared. They are gifts precisely because they involve a gift of the self in love to the other. Gift is an embodied act, and it is the way in which we are to see the world.
We are each given a gift. What gift do I carry inside? Do I know what gift I can give to the Christ child in my heart? What can I give? As Christina Rossetti writes in the last stanza of her poem,
“Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”
We can’t really give anything to God, except what has been first given to us. When we give gifts, it is because something or someone makes a claim on us, and we want to express our gratitude. It can never really be an exchange. In the case of God, moreover, God makes His claim on us; we cannot make a claim on God. No gift of our own will ever really be adequate to express our thanksgiving. We can only offer back the gift he has given us first: His love. Our love is formed and perfected in His love, and it is that we are to give. Jesus is the gift that we receive, and at the same time, he is the gift that we give in our worship because he is the true gift, the perfect gift, the gift of love. He is the only one who leads us to the Father, and the way we meet the Father is through love. Jesus is this love. In our hearts, if only we prepare Him room, dwells Love incarnate. The gift that we can give Him is our hearts filled with love , as we give of ourselves for each other.
How can we do that? Through the practice of mercy, which is what God demonstrates for us as the face of mercy in Jesus. We can do corporal and spiritual works of mercy for each other, and in doing so, we give our hearts to God. Likewise at Mass, we “lift up our hearts” to God in prayer. We can proclaim the praises of the Lord, as Mary does in her Magnificat, humbly lifting up her heart to God and magnifying His name. That is how we can make a difference in the world. It starts person to person. Mercy must be practiced constantly for love to bear fruit. In Jesus, our poverty is made rich because he is the gift of love, and he invites us to become sharers in that gift of love. Our life reveals its meaning in gift. Let us lift up our hearts to embrace that love and to share it with all we may encounter. Let us approach the newborn Jesus each day, gaze upon him in wonder in each person we meet, touch his face, and realize this gift of love that animates our lives. Let us walk rejoicing and share this gift with gratitude.