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The gift of Christmas

imago dei

It’s the week after Thanksgiving, the second day of December and the first week of Advent, which means, by all standards, the Christmas season has begun. The colorful lights, adorned trees, jolly music and festive cheer make the Christmas season the “most wonderful time of the year.”

Every November and December, retailers hope that the Christmas season will also be the most wonderful financial time of their year, yielding strong earnings to finish the fourth quarter with a healthy bottom line. Shoppers flock to stores or scour the web to buy new things at great prices. Most people, however, are not buying for themselves. The economic prosperity brought by the season is the result of a zeal more for giving than for consuming. Even though the West has over-commercialized Christmas, retailers succeed by responding not to a selfish “self-interest” but to the innate human desire to give.

Psychological and sociological studies confirm that, when we give to others, we feel better. Gift-giving provides the glue that bonds our society and counteracts the fragmentation of individualism. Humans are happy when we give things to others and happier still when we give ourselves to others. But why do humans enjoy giving? Why is it “more blessed to give than to receive?”

The answer is grounded in an important truth. Made in the imago Dei, the human person is designed to love—to will the good of another for his or her sake—because God is love. God has no need for creation, as creation can add nothing to his infinite existence. Yet we still exist, and not by our own self-sufficiency, of course, as we are born—we do not bear ourselves—and we will die. God gratuitously sustains us—he “loves” us—into being for our sake, not his.

Because we are made through love and to love, we are, necessarily, “relational” beings. We thrive when we are in healthy relationships, both with God and each other. That relationality drives the human person’s yearning to give. Saint John Paul II often spoke of the “Law of the Gift”—as we give of ourselves in love to others, we become more human. The more one gives, the more one “is”—the more fulfilled and happier one is.

At Christmastime, we celebrate the ultimate gift—the self-gift that God has given to humanity. Through the Incarnation, the name of the event that is Christmas, God gave himself to humanity by “becoming flesh” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The gift of the Incarnation demonstrates two points: that giving of ourselves is true to our nature as the imago Dei and thus a genuine and proper source of joy; and that our relationship with God is animating, not oppressive.

On the first point, God, through Christ, would ultimately assume upon himself the burden of mankind’s sin through the Crucifixion and defeat that sin through the Resurrection, demonstrating the redemptive, life-giving power of God’s self-gift. On the second point, God became man without diminishing divinity or humanity­—through the hypostatic union, he was both fully man and fully God. In Christ, God confirmed, as Bishop Robert Barron has often observed, that man and God are totally compatible and “co-inherent.”

For the materialist or utilitarian, who sees no transcendent meaning in life, the idea of self-gift is nonsensical. Social sciences may try to account for giving in reductive terms of “rational self-interest” or “reciprocal altruism,” in which we “love” because we expect some material gain in return. That gain may arrive in a reciprocated gift (we give to get), a “good feeling” (though missing is a meaningful explanation for why we feel joy when we give) or a greater likelihood of evolutionary survival.

But a gift to another for the sake of the other? That would be irrational to the homo economicus, who thrives by maximizing self-interest in terms of wealth, power, pleasure and, especially popular today, “absolute personal autonomy.” Christmas stands in opposition to homo economicus and provides an annual reminder that humanity flourishes by embracing the Law of the Gift. Even a Harvard Business School paper agrees. Psychologists and business professors surveyed relevant literature and concluded that those who give because of economic incentive or self-interest find less happiness in giving and are less likely to give again than those who give out of love.

Another popular view in the secular world is that humanity must say “no” to God to say “yes” to mankind. To be truly “free” and “autonomous,” this view asserts, we must throw off the oppressive yoke of the divine and “deify” ourselves. Christmas says, “Au contraire.” To say “yes” to mankind and to find our deepest fulfillment, we must join ourselves to the divine on the model of the Incarnation and in the manner of divine self-gift. In the words of Saint Irenaeus, an early Church father, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” not one who is oppressed. Christmas teaches that the spiritual life nourishes our wellbeing through a compatible, co-inherent relationship between the human person and God.

In a culture that prizes “having more” instead of “being more,” the Law of the Gift is counter-intuitive, and the phenomenon of “gift-giving” is puzzling. Indeed, we can recognize that sentiment at Duke where utility, GPA, social affiliation, identity and career tracks control most relationships and perspectives. Time is currency and not to be spent without a tangible return on investment.

But Christmas, in showing us why we give and why we thrive on giving, reveals how much richer life is supposed to be. This year, throw off the life-sapping yoke of materialism and embrace the authentic joy of giving that makes the Christmas season “the most wonderful time of the year.” View every purchase for another not as an exchange of utility but as an expression of the divine act of self-gift. Accompany every material gift with the much greater gift of our love—our desire to promote the good of the other for the sake of the other. Then, and only then, will we discover the true gift of Christmas.

William Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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