Christmastime brings about a lot of gift-giving to family and friends along with charitable gifts toward those who are in need. This past week, we all have received our fair share of gifts, whether they have come through material possessions or intangible realities. In all, I have always found it easier to give a gift to anther than to receive one for myself. I think I’m not alone in this. I think most people readily accept the joy that comes with the experience of giving a gift than in being the one who receives a gift unwittingly.
There are many ways to be a “bad” receiver of a gift. Receiving gifts politely doesn’t always come natural to us, and most often is a habit that must be taught to little children (i.e. saying thank you, even if they really aren’t thankful at the time). When I receive a gift that was particularly unexpected and thoughtful, I sometimes find it difficult to know the appropriate way to react. There’s one extreme that wants to get overly excited and thankful in a way that can overwhelm the giver (or others around for that matter). The other extreme tries to counter the over-excitement and can come across as ungrateful or unappreciative. Somewhere, the “virtuous” receiver can be found in the middle of these extremes. Even as one gets older, it can be difficult to receive a much needed gift in a suitable manner. It’s easy to become excited with anticipation for a present you’ve been waiting for only to be let down by it not being exactly for which you had hoped. Or one can surely feel inconsiderate when one receives a gift but has nothing to offer in return. I think a lot of people subconsciously like to pay-it-back when giving gifts just so no one, including themselves, feel bad about receiving a charitable present. In reality though, I think we diminish the charity of another when we try to counter one thoughtful gift with a thoughtful gift of our own. In fact, charity requires someone freely accepting the a gift and not just the exchange of one gift for another.
To explain this point even further, let’s up the ante shall we. Imagine now that you’ve received a gift that is in No way merited and cannot simply be sufficed by a mere thank you. Not only is this gift a substantial one, but it is constantly being given to you. Such a gift is so great that there is nothing you can do or say or buy that will even come close to showing your gratitude for such a gift. Like I said before, this gift is absolutely unmerited and, if viewed by outsiders, could very well be considered a wasted gift. C.S. Lewis offers such an example in the form of a newlywed couple in which one of the spouses is struck down with an incurable disease that leaves him/her hideous, useless, dependent on the other’s salary, and on the continual, selfless care from the other. While the loving spouse who commits to taking care of their decrepit spouse offers a tremendous, self-sacrificing gift to be treasured, Lewis argues that it is much harder and more efficacious to be on the receiving end. To have to submit oneself to being completely helpless and undeserving of such tremendous love is hugely altruistic in and of itself.
It took me a while but I finally realized that this is one of the greatest lessons we can learn during the Christmas season. This lesson comes not in giving gifts to others, but in receiving gifts that are absolutely undeserving and have no adequate means of reciprocation. This doesn’t hold any more true than in the Incarnation of Christ and celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist. The reception of our Lord and Creator is a Very intimidating thing and rightly so. I once heard someone remark that if we had perfect understanding of the glory of Christ we are receiving at Communion, we would be too afraid to approach. But here we are, in the Christmas season, celebrating the humble beginnings of a child born of a virgin, surrounded by the lowliest of society. There is no way we can ever deserve to receive Christ in such a manner, but knowing that full well, He offers Himself to us freely, everyday of our lives. Again, it took me a while, but I finally understand what people mean when they counsel you to pray to better welcome Christ into your life. It’s a very humbling experience and takes a commitment toward forgoing one’s own desires to be deserving of such a tremendous gift. As C.S. Lewis points to, Charity is a two way street that requires both a giver and receiver. May we be the humble and virtuous receivers of such an extraordinary gift.