Give gifts worthy of a King

Karna Swanson

Be honest, your heart sinks a little at the approach of Christmas. The First Sunday of Advent draws near, and what looms large before us are long to-do lists, multiple trips to crowded shopping centers, and the worry about how we are going to pay for it all.

American consumerism is out of control, and it’s taking a toll on Christmas.

There may be a part of us that wishes that the gift-giving part of Christmas would just go away, so we could envelop ourselves in a shroud of silence and focus all our energies on the true meaning of Christmas—the impenetrable and profound mystery of the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

While there is merit in wishing we could do away with all the hoopla surrounding Christmas, we must remember that there is a spiritual, and might I add, potentially evangelical side of gift giving that we shouldn’t overlook.

Therese Mueller, a mid-century author on Catholic culture in the home, had this sage advice on how to approach gift-giving: “As far as Christmas gifts are concerned, let us emphasize their true meaning, now so generally forgotten: overpowered by God’s generosity in giving his only-begotten Son as the Redeemer of mankind, Christians feel urged to imitate in a limited manner God’s great love and liberality by spreading happiness among relatives and friends through gifts.”

But, she added, “only if our gifts—small though they be—are borne along on a wave of true charity will they be worthy to lie beside the crib, which represents the real gift, the gift of all gifts, without which we should still be sitting in darkness and in the slavery of Sin.”

In a controversial footnote, she also suggests to parents that they stop telling “white lies” to their children about Santa Claus, and begin to tell them that it is “the Christ Child who presents our family with the abundance of grace and happiness and peace.” But, I digress.

There are lot of good ways Catholics can take back the practice of gift-giving, which is currently rooted in a frenzied consumerism, and turn it into a real effort to give of ourselves in a way that emulates Our Father in heaven.

First, before we can recapture a more spiritual motivation for gift giving, we have to let it sink into our bones that everything we have comes first from Our Heavenly Father. Being grateful for what we have received, and aware that all we have has been given to us freely by our God, whom we can never repay, puts our little acts of gift-giving into perspective.

Second, don’t forget the poor. If we only give to those who can return the favor, or even better, give us even bigger gifts than we gave, then we haven’t learned well the lessons Jesus tried to teach us during his short sojourn with us here on earth.

When making out your Christmas list, put the poor and needy at the top. Give them first billing, and you will have put a new focus on your gift-giving.

Third, give your time and energy. Make Christmas a time to reach out to those you haven’t had the opportunity to see in a long time. Create opportunities to get together with friends and family and just spend time with others.

Fourth, evangelize. There are so many opportunities to remind friends and family of God’s love during Christmas! For example, give Christmas greetings. “Have a Snoopy Christmas” is a fun sentiment, but are you missing an opportunity to evangelize by not reminding people of the true meaning of Christmas?

Fifth, give gifts. Gifts are genuine gestures of love, esteem and friendship. And be generous. Just make sure your gifts, and the motivations behind them, are “worthy to lie beside the crib” of the King of Kings.

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.