What's Tony Thinking

A Few Thoughts on Gifts and Gift-Giving


I’ve been thinking about gifts and Christmas presents, which is pretty natural — if not unavoidable — at this time of year.

One of the things I have both experienced and observed is that a sense of disappointment seems almost always to shadow these rituals. No matter how large the mountain of gifts beneath the tree, no matter how extravagant or big or lustrous the gifts themselves may be, when all the unwrapping has been done, it isn’t enough.

Children tear through their gifts, but nothing is THE MAGIC ONE that sets the all the bells ringing and all lights blinking. Adults hope that they have finally gotten the whole thing right, selected THE perfect gift that will both convey the love they feel, but also elicit love and approval in return. It’s a high stakes game.

Perhaps there is a sense of let-down simply because the build-up has been so great and, for weeks now, relentless. What could ever possibly fulfill the level of expectations stirred by all the advertisements that so cleverly thrum every single one of our heartstrings? The jewelry ads are the one’s that especially get under my skin. They are all directed at men. Get the right necklace, ring or earrings and this sexy woman will give you the kiss (and possibly more) that you’ll never forget. Ah well.

But what I’m thinking is that the shadow of disappointment may be the real gift. It says that there is something else — something different than the most-hyped toy or the dazzling gem — for which our hearts long. That we will never be satisfied by any specific tangible gift. And that is not a bad thing but a good thing. The answer to “Is that all there is?” is “No.”

But the longing we have to receive or give the perfect gift, a longing that is never quite satisfied, points us elsewhere, points us toward something different than another present, given or received.

I may be verging on a “keep Christ in Christmas” moment here, something I would like to avoid, both because the sentiment is a cliche, but also because it has become politicized.

And yet, there is a way in which the whole gift-giving experience needs to be rooted in something deeper. Some way in which it itself points beyond itself.

I wrote an essay about prayer, and more specifically, praying in public not long ago. My audience was young clergy. It’s easy when you are put on the spot for what is often described as “a little prayer,” to panic and think only about the people who are listening. What will please, move, or gratify them? Thus is prayer turned into some kind of performance. But, of course, the only real audience for prayer — if it is truly prayer — is God.

I suggested to my young clergy colleagues that our prayers are always “the second word.” The first word has already been spoken. It is God’s word. Our prayers are a response to what God has done, to what God is doing. So my own prayers in public generally begin with silence, a silence during which I ask myself what God is already busy doing here and how can my prayer be a faithful response?

I think there’s an analogy here for gift-giving. Our gifts and gift-giving at Christmas are a response, a response to a mystery and love that has loved us first. Our gift giving is not an attempt to create love or intimacy all on our own. They are a response to the way God has first loved us. As such, the gifts we give and receive need not bear the entire weight of our need or expectation. None of our gifts can, or should, fulfill a longing for God. Only God can fill that place/ space in our souls, our hearts.

So perhaps we can, then, lower our expectations for the meaning to be found in either the gifts we receive or the gifts we give. They are but signs of a greater gift. The gift of grace, of a love that has loved us even before the foundations of the world.

Which is one reason that I’ve often thought that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is one of the very best sources of gift ideas. Consider these gifts: “Eight lords-a-leaping,” “Nine maids-a-milking,” “Five golden rings,” and “A partridge in a pear tree.” You know the whole improbable list. “Seven swans-a-swimming . . .”

Can you imagine actually receiving a partridge in a pear tree? What a wildly inappropriate gift. The very craziness of these gifts reminds us that our Christmas giving is a response to the wildly inappropriate gift of a baby born in a barn, born to an unmarried couple who will very soon be on the run for their lives, and his. In Christ has God made our spiritual homelessness his home.

So whether you give a modest and appropriate or a wildly inappropriate gift, remember that is but a sign of a greater love, of a more mysterious gift of which our own gifts at best hint.


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