05 November 2007

Devil in a giftbox

31st Week OT(M): Romans 11.29-36 and Luke 14.12-14
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

The clock is ticking down to Christmas Eve and my mom and I are in some nameless store full of the same stuff that gets stuffed into every other nameless store at Christmas, and we’re both staring holes in our gift lists, hoping, praying that the long line of names will somehow magically shrink or just disappear; but, if anything the queue of hungry gift-getters seems to get longer with each gift we buy and our frustration and aggravation grows as we come to the firm conclusion that we are no longer Shopping for Gifts but Hunting for Sacrifices to throw into the growling maw of the idol of seasonal expectation and social niceness, sacrifices meant to appease some distance deity of mercantile exchange, a god or goddess who feeds on the living impatience of the ungifted, the stress of the holiday procrastinator, and the anxiety of the absent-minded. You are freed from this monster when you realize that you are no longer looking for gifts for people you love and respect but shopping for merchandise to exchange with those most likely to present you with a wrapped box at a holiday party or family event. Your “gift” is really just a hedged bet against the almost certainty that Bob or Sue or Bill or Jack will hand you Something. You had better have Something to hand back. The moment you let go of the idea that gifting has anything at all to do with exchanging, you are free from the slavery of the holiday shopping goddess.

This notion that gifting is a species of exchanging is not limited to Christmas present-giving. We find the temptation to appease the goddess of exchange in most of our social doings. Jesus is invited to one of these doings and takes the opportunity to teach those gathered a little lesson in the true nature of gifting. He tells his Pharisee host and the other guests that a truly gracious dinner, that is, a God-graced banquet, will not be attended by friends, family members, and wealthy neighbors—those, in other words, who can and will invite you to their place in return. The truly God-graced banquet will be packed full of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and blind—those, in other words, who cannot and will not invite you to a dinner party in exchange for your initial generosity. Though you will not be invited to their place for dinner, you will be “blessed indeed…because of their inability to repay you.” This is soul of the gift.

This is one of Jesus’ more straightforward teachings on the nature of generosity. Not too far underneath or too far behind this teaching on gifting is another teaching on the nature of our salvation. Deeply seated in the Jewish religious imagination is the ritual power of exchange, gifts changing hands under the terms of a covenant. Gifts are given to God in the temple to strengthen belonging, to maintain purity or to reestablish purity, for healing and health. From the creature’s side of the covenant nothing divine is free. The New Covenant is a theological, philosophical, spiritual coup, overthrowing the older means of belonging, purifying, and healing. As the perfect gift, we are given Christ on the Cross once. There is no exchange. Our Father, as the wealthy host, has invited us—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the sinful—has invited us to His banquet with no expectation of receiving anything in return. What could we give God in return for His gift of Himself? The only possibility is for us to bundle ourselves up into His gift of Himself and give ourselves back in Christ. And so you are here to add yourself, we are here to add ourselves to the sacrificial offerings of the altar, placing ourselves under the hands of Christ’s priest as the priest prays, “Lord, send your Spirit upon these gifts that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, your Son, Jesus Christ.” Though we are not worthy to receive the Lord into our house, we are made worthy of His irrevocable gifts, His irrevocable call, made worthy by His mercy.

Walk out that door this morning having offered yourself as a gift to the Father, fully prepared and empowered to invite to your table all those who cannot repay your gift to them: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.


  1. all this talk of money,presents etc..consumer religion..i'm having nothing to do with it this year...humbug! Perhaps..

  2. I am going to consider the WGA Strike an "opportunity for growth" in terms of feeding the Christmas Monster.

    I'm planning to follow the example of a wise Jesuit friend who gave up the entire racket years ago and informed all of his family and friends: "Everyone is getting coffee, please let me know whether you want ground or beans."

    I might throw in a cute mug, too. Depending on how the negotiations are going.