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“The Mystery of the Gift” 15 December 2011

One child prayed:

Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.” Joyce.

And another child prayed:

“Dear God, I do not think anybody could be a better God than you. Well, I just want you to know that. I am not just saying that because you are already God.” Charles.

In their innocence, both of these children did not want to sound or be manipulative. Unfortunately, in our gift-giving and gift-receiving during Christmas time, we may be inclined to be manipulative and debase gift-giving to what we say in Latin: “Do ut des,” “I give so that I can get” or “I give so that you can give (me something back”). The joyous season of Christmas gives us the opportunity to reflect on the true selfless nature of gift-giving and receiving and avoid being manipulative and self-serving. It is what Pope John Paul II called “the mystery of the gift.”

The mystery of the gift unfolds for us in the words of Scripture describing the birth of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel (2:1-20) which proclaims the birth of Jesus, there are a number of allusions to the incomparable gift of the Holy Eucharist. Luke is not merely recounting the physical birth of Jesus, but also, and more importantly, the birth of Jesus in the Eucharistic celebration – of Jesus coming alive and being born in us as our food, as our bread. Mary and Joseph, we are told, travel to Bethlehem, which literally means the House of Bread. It is Mary, as the figure of the Church, that wraps the babe in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger, that is, in a place for providing food. The angel proclaiming the birth of Jesus emphasizes the contemporaneous nature of this birth by exclaiming to the shepherds and to us, “For today in the city of David [.i.e., Bethlehem, the House of Bread] a savior has been born to you who is Christ and Lord.” So it is not merely a birth that took place once-and-for-all in the past, but a recurrent birth.

The multitude of heavenly hosts proclaiming ‘Glory to God in the highest’ alludes to a liturgical celebration of the breaking of the bread where this prayer was used as it is in our liturgy today. We’re told that the shepherds hasten to the House of Bread, i.e., Bethlehem, saw and adored the babe lying in the food trough, in the manger. We see Mary contemplating the babe in the manger and pondering all these things in her heart as the perfect picture not only of motherly bliss, but also, and more importantly, as the faithful disciple adoring her Eucharistic Lord. This, I think, is the clearest connection in the synoptic gospels of Mary to the Holy Eucharist. She is presented by Luke as the Mother of the Church providing the Eucharistic Lord as our food. This gospel was composed almost 30 or 40 years after the death and resurrection of the Lord, and the gospel writer, Luke, is the same one, who in the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that the disciples remained faithful to the prayers, Apostolic teaching and the breaking of the bread, i.e., the celebration of the Eucharist.

So as we reflect more deeply on the words of Luke’s narrative, we are reminded of the gift that Jesus gives of himself, totally and completely in the Holy Eucharist. During this gift-giving season, we should ask ourselves how we are to receive this wondrous gift

St. Francis de Sales recommends that we receive it with the same disposition that Mary had. He compares Mary’s experience at the moment of the Incarnation to our experience in receiving the Holy Eucharist. Like Mary, in this sacrament, we are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit when Jesus himself in his humanity and divinity are given to us. The saint states:

In a manner of speaking [Jesus] is conceived and born in us… Consequently, we can very well say with our Lady, after this reflection: “Behold, I am the [servant] of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”[Lk. 1:38]. And what word? According to the word spoken by his sacred mouth that whoever eats it will live forever [Jn 6:57,58, 51, 55, 59]. This is why it is even good to say after Communion, the holy canticle of Our Lady, called the Magnificat, to reflect on and ponder it.” (OEA, 26, p.222).

This prayer expresses Mary’s great joy when she says, “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.” So the disposition in receiving this inexpressible gift should be one of joyful gratitude.

Along with Pope John Paul II, Francis de Sales sees Mary as expressing the most perfect Eucharistic attitude, an attitude that results in a profound gratitude of self-giving. Reflecting on the virtue of gratitude, C.K. Chesterton remarks:

The test of all gratitude is happiness. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys and sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he puts in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents…. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth? (Orthodoxy, p. 98).

John Paul II expressed the mystery of the gift in this way:

The Church’s claim is that we reach our fulfillment as human beings not by asserting ourselves, but by giving ourselves — by making ourselves into the gift to others that life itself is to us.

And elsewhere, he states:

Self-giving, according to the Second Vatican Council, is the royal road to human happiness: we discover our true selves in a ‘sincere giving’ of ourselves.

It is the Holy Eucharist that will inspire us to this self-giving, self-discovery, and self-affirmation and make us realize that every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist we are really and truly celebrating Christmas.

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