Give gifts worthy of a King

Karna Lozoya

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: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”