Sunday, November 19, 2006



When customary occasions for a general giving of gifts approach, there is often discussion of custom and protocol, meaning and intent surrounding the choice of gifts and recipients, and this post is part of such a discussion.

No occasion of this sort provokes more such discussion in my experience than Christmas, the Christian commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and his reception as the promised redeemer of not only his own people but of all the world.

There's usually a general lament of how crassly commercial the season has become, blunting and even negating the general spirit of good will engendered by the holiday's roots. Some feel that this is a genuine loss; others point out that without any actual basis in historical fact or genuine belief for the sentiment, its degeneration into hollow custom and even debauchery is hardly remarkable. The argument is equally powerful whether you believe that the lack is in genuine belief or in the factual basis for the belief.

This is not one of those. I do have similar sentiments, into which I will offer some insight here, but to lament such a thing seems no more useful or meaningful to me than to lament that people do wicked things or that I have to get up in the morning and go to work five days a week; it's not as though nothing can change it, but of the things that can, complaining usually isn't one.

I do believe and accept the historical basis for the Christmas holiday. There is no divine commandment to celebrate it, and historically it is quite doubtful that the Roman holiday that some early church leader apparently chose to repurpose happened to coincide with the actual anniversary of the birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus was born, and I do believe that his birth was cause for celebration of the highest magnitude -- even without the attestation of not one but a "multitude of the heavenly host" -- because of everything that happened before, because of the words of the prophets and of God himself, and because of everything that happened after. This birth was the first tangible sign of all that he accomplished later in living a completely sinless life and offering himself as the only possible redemption of my - well, less than sinless - life.

Having devoted several paragraphs to what I'm not going to say, I'll begin my actual message. This is not a lament but an exhortation, and an examination of gift-giving that I hope will make it easier to dodge the diabolical ironies that can plague the most sincere and thoughtful givers, robbing them of the joy and satisfaction of giving and receiving when gifts are customarily exchanged.

First, let me appear to contradict myself by pointing out that by definition, gifts are never exchanged. Exchange of value is the definition of a commercial transaction; truly seeing the mutual giving of gifts as an exchange nullifies the value of both gifts, because neither is actually a gift but an obligation in the light of the other. A gift, by its definition, is given by one who is not obligated to one who is not deserving.

Neither does a gift produce obligation in the recipient. Hopefully, it will produce gratitude, by all means - and gratitude may (and often should) express itself in many of the same ways, hence the confusion. But if something is given in a way that implies a requirement of reciprocity, it ceases to be a gift.

Without keeping the above in mind, both giver and receiver can be robbed of the joy of a gift.

Though applicable at any time or season, I concentrate here on Christmas both because it's fairly imminent and because I believe that the nature of God's gift, which ostensibly underlies the gift-giving motive at this season, is similarly misunderstood, with far more serious implications.

First, God was not obligated to rescue us from our own wickedness. He had the power; no one else did; and we were desperately in need (since those three items sum up the essential differences between the doctrine of Christ and all of the world's other religions, understanding this is crucial - so to speak...). Nevertheless, the fault was all our own, and repeated calls to repentance had, more often than not, shortened the life expectancy of those who conveyed them. Many centuries of this made it plain that God would have been unquestionably justified in condemning all of us without appeal. His offer, then, of a substitution - His life for ours - can be seen as nothing but an unparallelled love and generosity.

Does this produce in us an obligation? No. If we do not respond with love, joy, gratitude, exultant praise and faithful obedience, it shows us to be the same unfaithful, ungrateful, ungodly people we had already been unequivocally proven to be, but God's gift does not obligate us to these, or it would not be a gift, despite (or especially because of) the fact that God himself was the giver. Of course, we were already obligated to him because he was God, but you see how meaningful that obligation was to us...

Hopefully, you can find some encouragement for yourself in all that. For my part, when it comes to gifts, I don't want to feel obligated to give; that reduces it to a debt, and I deal with debts either by just paying them or fretting about them until I do, and I feel poorer for it. For those I love who seem to feel that they are owed something by me(and happily, off the top I really can't think of any) then, I can remind myself that whatever they think, I am offering love and not paying a debt, though in truth I may owe them my love because either they brought me into the world, or I them, or because (in one case only) I promised before God and the law that I would.

Far more than not wanting to feel obligated myself, I don't want others to feel obligated to me - not only would the giving not give them joy but I certainly don't want to feel that what I received was not something the person really wanted to give to me just to please or help me or otherwise express affection or regard.

So for those of you who know me, and are likely either to be expected to give gifts to me or to expect a gift from me, forget those expectations, all of them. Know that I will not feel slighted, or snubbed, or insulted, or robbed, or whatever people feel when they receive less than they think they should have received - that will be impossible, because I deserve nothing from you, and that if I receive anything at all, I will take it as the willing gift of your heart to mine in celebration of the divine gift that inspired this holiday .

Likewise, you may - and I hope you will - interpret what you receive from me in the same way, with the caveat that between my conceiving and your receiving are many miles of chaotic neural pathways that may cause the result to be difficult to interpret, or even to disappear altogether.

So, because of Christmas and what it celebrates rather than just because it's near, I wish you peace and joy, and hope that you will receive it whether or not you receive something more tangible and temporal wrapped in pretty paper with a nice note on it.

And speaking of gift-giving, some lovely person identifying {his|her|it}self as askinstoo left me four very considerate comments advising me on how I could make extra money by being a Secret Shopper.

Since I have four of them, would anyone like one before I throw the rest away? It would be a shame to let them go to waste, what with all those people starving around the world...

O well; they've already spoiled and I've had to toss them, sorry...
Excellent! And definitely written in a style that is uniquely yours, and only yours. And I wish to you the very same. As my wife would put it, "Happy Birthday, Jesus!"
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