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what is a good gift?

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Christmas is always a challenging time for me. In many ways, the gift-giving practices (and accompanying consumerism) surrounding the season seem to clash with nearly everything I find in the story of Jesus' birth. And yet, I don't want to become cynical and miss out on all that is good in our present-day traditions. The benefit of my yearly angst is that every December I find myself going back to the basics, reminding myself once again what is important, what is true, and what is good. I try to put into practice the directive Paul gives to the Philippians: "Fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy. Keep to the script." (Philippians 4:8-9a, The Voice). Well, my script this year included two well-known stories.

You might be familiar with the century-old short story, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. You can read it here. Published in 1905, it tells the tale of a poor, young couple, Jim and Della, who desire to give each other the perfect gift on Christmas. Alas, they have no money to spare. The only two things of real value in their household are Jim's gold watch, passed down from his grandfather, and Della's long, cascading hair. Della decides to sell her hair in order to buy Jim a gold chain for his precious watch. When Jim sees her without her long hair, he is stunned, unable to take it in. Stella gives him the gold watch chain and explains that she couldn't bear not having anything to give him for Christmas. Jim confesses that he sold his gold watch to buy her jeweled combs for her beautiful hair. In the end, they are both left with useless gifts, but the reader intuits that somehow, they both gave very good gifts.

Another story of giving is found in these familiar words: "For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life. Here's the point. God didn't send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction." (John 3:16-17, The Voice)

These two stories help me recognize what a good and perfect gift looks like.
1. A good gift comes out of love. Essentially, a gift is love in action.
2. A good gift is costly; it involves giving up something which is precious to the giver.
3. A good gift invites a response; it is not detached, indifferent, or anonymous. Because....
4. A good gift expresses a desire to be close(r) to the recipient. A good gift is about establishing and/or deepening a loving relationship.
5. A good gift benefits the recipient; it is not superfluous. A good gift should actually make someone's life better in some way.
5. A good gift has no strings attached. In other words, it is not part of an obligatory exchange. It is a free offering of love, a bestowal of worth on the recipient, so to speak.
6. A good gift invites transformation. Because a gift is based in love and invites relationship, ideally, it does not leave the giver or the recipient unmoved and unchanged.

Admittedly, every material gift we give is imperfect and falls short on many of these points. In addition, I am imperfect and miss the mark when it comes to my motivations for giving. However, reminding myself what a good and perfect gift looks like helps to re-orient me in the right direction, to remember why giving gifts is important and necessary. When we give a gift, we are essentially giving ourselves. When we receive a gift, we receive the other person. Both sides of this equation are present in the person of Jesus. God gives himself to humanity, and at the same time, receives humanity into himself. That's pretty amazing. This is how I remember what is good and beautiful about Christmas.

This Christmas season, may I give myself more freely to God and to others and may I also freely receive God and others in whatever way they choose to give themselves to me.

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