The Perfect Gift


Christmas is a time for giving and receiving gifts. Tina Beattie, a mother of four children, who is completing her doctoral studies in theology at Bristol University, suggests how our gift of faith 'might help us this Christmas, in all the unruliness of family life, to contemplate afresh the gift that God gave to the world when he "became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man"'.

The thought of writing on the Incarnation and its message for Christian families at Christmas made me quail inwardly. My Christian family consists of a bunch of budding anarchists, atheists and hedonists, who regard their mother's theological pursuits with amused indulgence and are not averse to using the term 'religious freak'. (Apparently one of my daughter's friends recently said after meeting me that I didn't look like a religious freak, which left me greatly relieved but also somewhat mystified - what do religious freaks look like?) Our family church attendance amounts to Christmas, Easter, First Communions and Confirmations (they have all, surprisingly, wanted to go through these processes), and for some years we have had a rather haphazard routine of praying together during Advent. (This was achieved by bribery - when the children were little, they were not allowed to eat the sweets from the Advent calendar until we had said prayers.) As family spirituality goes it doesn't amount to much.

I suspect though that, for many Catholics, my own experience of family life comes closer to reality than the idealised image that the Church sometimes presents to the world. Many young people are not interested in church-going, and I do not believe that this is all due to the failure of the Church. Our children inhabit a consumer-driven society in which the lust for everything to be flashier and more exciting than it was yesterday appears to have no limits. Compared with raves and free parties, computer games and television, mountain bikes and rollerblades, church is boring, thank God. It is also there, essentially unchanging in its message, long after the glitz of youth culture has grown stale and the eternal questions of life and death, love and meaning present themselves anew, as they do in every generation. I recently tried to explain to one of my teenagers that I want to share my faith with them because it is the only thing I have to give that nobody and nothing can ever take away. In a society where few children have any sense of belonging to a faith community and participating in its beliefs and symbols, I believe we offer our children something of infinite value when we offer them our faith, however imperfect the offering, however ineffectual our efforts seem to be. There is a Zen saying that 'no seed ever sees the flower'. For most of us, this is surely true of the faith we teach our children.

Perfect gift
Yet while faith is the only gift that nothing can destroy, it is not ours to give. At best, we can create the conditions in which the gift can be received, a spirit of receptivity and openness which is able to respond to God's gift with joy and to live the life of faith with thanksgiving. So what is the gift of faith, and what indeed does it mean to give and receive a gift? How might it help us this Christmas, in all the unruliness of family life, to contemplate afresh the gift that God gave to the world when he 'became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man'?

The perfect gift is, I suspect, beyond our human capacity to comprehend. It implies a boundless freedom in the act of giving, so forgetful of self that it has no motive other than the well-being of the other person. If I give in order to feel good about myself, to be liked, to create a sense of indebtedness, then I have entered into an elaborate social transaction that is not true giving. Likewise, if I receive a gift with a sense of awkwardness, if I feel that I owe something in return, if I dislike the one who gives, then the act of giving is also diminished. A perfect gift must be given in perfect freedom and received in perfect thanksgiving, and how rarely, if ever, do we achieve such a gesture in all the complex negotiations of human relationships? Our giving is muddled, fraught with expectations and the fear of disappointment, which is not to deny that it is often loving, abundant and gracious. The ways in which we exchange gifts are surrounded by cultural expectations and codes of behaviour, and there is nothing wrong with that. But Christmas calls us to step outside these norms for a while, and to contemplate the astonishing mystery of God's gift to us, which is the gift of life itself.

But even this can be misleading, because God does not give me life as if I am a pre-existent recipient who could survive without the gift. I am the gift, because I only exist through God's gracious decision to bring me into being. We come into this world as the gift of life which flutters and gasps on the brink of extinction, which humankind has a million imaginative ways of taking away but no way of giving. To experience myself is to experience God's giving. Maybe when we acknowledge this, we experience our relationship to God in a new light. If I think in terms of life as God's gift to me I feel a sense of obligation, as if I owe God something in return other than just being. But if I am the gift, then my vocation is simply to be the person I am, to live as God's gift to the world. Isn't that what it is to be Christian - to be God's gift to the world? Perhaps this is what Irenaeus meant when he said that 'the glory of God is a person fully alive'.

But of course we are not simply gift-wrapped packages in the hands of God. God creates us out of an infinitely loving desire to give and he intends us to be perfect gifts to one another, but in the sinful realities of human existence, the gift of God becomes distorted by the selfishness of our desires and the arrogance of our ambitions. Unsatisfied with the abundance of God's gift of life, we always want more. We create a culture of greed and consumerism in our land of plenty, and this in turn leads to what Ciaron O'Reilly describes as 'an economy of starvation, an economy of theft.' 1

Knowing how to receive
If we find it difficult to give generously, we also struggle to receive graciously. Spending Christmas on a farm in Zambia a few years ago, my family decided that rather than drive to a church in Lusaka on Christmas Day, we would join the service for the farm workers. It was held in one of the classrooms in the farm school, and we sent a message to ask if it would be all right for us to attend. By the time we arrived, a row of padded armchairs had been carried in so that we would not have to sit on the small school chairs, and the service had been hastily rearranged so that it would be in English rather than in the local dialect. My first reaction was of embarrassment. In the past, we colonials had expected such deference from African people. We did not receive it as a gift, but demanded it as a right. Now, having undergone a political metamorphosis, I found myself once again in the role of the white madam and I did not know how to receive the gift that was being offered. I was too bound up in my own shame and guilt, too preoccupied with maintaining my post-colonial image, to receive a generous gift of welcome and hospitality. We need humility and poverty of spirit, a lack of concern for self and an openness to the other, as much when we receive as when we give.

At Christmas, we receive God's gift to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is who he is by virtue of being God's life, and when the Word became flesh, he became flesh as God's perfect gift of self to the world. But for the gift of Jesus to be perfectly given and perfectly received, for it to be free of all the economic exchanges that take place when the laws of this world prevail, it was not enough for God to give in perfect love. The gift also had to be received in perfect love. There had to be one human being in all history who knew how to fulfil her vocation to be fully herself in order to be a gift to others, to recognise that she existed only through God's desire to give, and that in every fibre of her being, every breath of her body, every word she uttered, she was nothing and nobody but an expression of God's love. Only by knowing herself to be God's perfect gift to the world could she accept God's perfect gift on behalf of the world. There is no false humility to Mary, no self-sufficiency disguising itself as unworthiness. Mary does not need say, 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you', because the question of her own worthiness does not enter her head. God is not offering her a gift that she has to earn through her own merit. God has chosen her, and she has perfect faith in God's perfect choice. God asks nothing of her but her own delight and joy in being both gift and gifted. Mary is God's gift to Christ, no less than Christ is God's gift to Mary. And just as Christ is given to every one of us through Mary's gracious acceptance of the gift, so every one of us is given to Christ through God's gracious choice of Mary.

Healing the cosmos
But what is this gift that God gives to the world when he becomes the son of the Virgin? For the Church Fathers, the gift meant the healing of the ancient rift between Word and flesh, God and humanity, spirit and nature. This is the essence of the good news entrusted to the Church, that God has taken human flesh in order to redeem the whole of creation. Christmas Day invites us to wonder anew at the astonishing truth that the birth of Mary's baby heals the shattered cosmos and restores significance to the material world. Today, postmodernist philosophers agonise over the broken relationship between language and meaning, between words and the world. This is a pagan concern, and it finds its echo in many of the Greek philosophers who were writing at the time of the early Church. Their influence on the subsequent shaping of Christian theology was profound, but nevertheless on one fundamental point there was consistent and often heated disagreement. The philosophers could not accept the Christian claim that God had truly taken on human flesh, and the test of Christian orthodoxy came to rest on this claim. Tertullian, not noted for the restraint of his theological style, describes the birth of Jesus in a way that might shock many modern readers who would claim to be more holistic than our patristic forefathers. Tertullian's detailed and bloody description is intended to defend the natural processes of childbirth, and to challenge the dualism of Gnostic thinkers such as Marcion, who held the material world to be evil:

This reverend course of nature, you, O Marcion, are pleased to spit upon;
and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at his birth;
then after what fashion do you love anybody?
...Well then, loving man Christ loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well.

Many people think that we live in a society where the old dualisms have been set aside and at last we are free to celebrate ourselves as embodied and sexual beings. Yet in a culture where we live longer, spend more and suffer less physical hardship than any generation in history, our bodies have become the focus of all our greatest anxieties, inadequacies and fears. We claim to celebrate the body, but we have created a culture in which our teenage daughters face self-starvation induced by a cultural ideal that masks a loathing of the human (female?) flesh. We are increasingly inclined to believe that the suffering body is the disposable body, because we are less and less able to accept the realities of conception, birth, old age and death that mark out our bodily existence. This is what Pope John Paul II calls 'a culture of death'. What gift can the Church make to such a culture at Christmas?

Sometimes, when we consider the barbarism of the twentieth century, it seems that the only appropriate theology is a theology of the cross. Christ's agony provides no answers, but at least it offers some mysterious assurance that whatever humanity suffers, God participates in that suffering even to the point of torture and death. We should not underestimate the significance of Christ's suffering, but it is only half the story of the Incarnation. The story of Christ encompasses birth as well as death. The good news comes to us first on the lips of pregnant women, when Elizabeth and Mary dance in one another's arms and proclaim the greatness of God. The suffering of human existence demands a theology that can accommodate grief and failure, desolation and loss, but the Incarnation also requires a theology of joy and celebration, of wonder at the gift of divine life as human flesh which is greater than all the tyrannies and genocides of history. Before this mother and her child, all the hubris of history is shattered and the orderly structures of an inhuman world are invited to yield to the fragile vulnerability of new-born life. In a Christmas sermon, Augustine gave joyful expression to the wonder of the Incarnation:

Truth, on which the bliss of the angels is incorruptibly nourished, has sprung from the earth, in order to be suckled at breasts of flesh. Truth, which heaven is not big enough to hold, has sprung from the earth, in order to be placed in a manger. 3

This Christmas, people will crowd into churches looking for something beyond the consumerism of the season, bringing with them all the embodied realities of life. Some will come fearing death, made aware perhaps of their own mortality with the onset of old age or illness. Others will come planning the Christmas dinner, thinking of bodies to be fed, only half-listening to the homily. Bored children will fidget, exhausted parents and besotted lovers alike will long for the moment when they can crawl into bed at the end of the day. Thinking, breathing, loving, lusting, suffering, desiring bodies, every one of them an expression of God's gift of life. Christianity does not need to become another advocate of the body beautiful, it needs to become an advocate of the body per se. Our bodies are not the gift wrap but the gift. A book by the feminist theologian, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, is entitled I am My Body. 4 That is why Christians cling to the outrageous belief that not only was Christ incarnate in human flesh, but that human flesh will rise again with Christ. Christianity is the most materialist of all the world's religions. In a recent issue of New Internationalist, Jeremy Seabrook challenges the idea that Western culture is materialistic. He says that 'a truly materialistic society would have a far greater respect for the material world than the West displays'. 5 We often assume that the Church's duty is to make Western culture more spiritual. After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, there was a sense of satisfaction among Christians that people do after all resort to prayers and candles when they are sad. But actually, anyone on a day trip to Glastonbury can hardly doubt the compatibility between consumerism, candles and spiritual feelings. The real solution to consumerism is not more spirituality but more materialism. The message of Christmas is a gut-level, fundamental celebration of materialism, of the birth of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary.

Christmas is not a time of perfect harmony and happy families. It is a time when probably most of us spend too much, drink too much and eat too much. More families than we care to imagine are torn apart by violence, alcoholism and abuse at Christmas. The lonely feel lonelier than ever before, the bereaved experience their bereavement more acutely than at any other time, and all the ordinary irritations of family life can erupt when we find ourselves forced to spend more time with the extended family in a couple of days than many of us do in a year. All this is true, and yet it is here and nowhere else that we experience God's gift of life. God comes within the chaos, within the discord, within the failures, and he sits with us at table in all the lumpy, wrinkly, pimply, sweaty bodies that we feast with and fight with.

To embody life for one another, and to strive for a world where every human being brought to life through the breath of God finds welcome and shelter in the human family, that is to be God's gift to the world, in our own small way, wherever we happen to be. Of course we will fail. Even Mary, perfect in her love and her faithfulness, was a failure in the eyes of the world. From the moment Mary said yes to God, her life was plunged into the kind of traumas that only the most vulnerable and marginalised people experience - the traumas of homelessness, of persecution, of becoming a refugee, of watching her son being tortured to death. Mary belongs among those who have nothing to give this Christmas but themselves, and who in that act of giving become miraculous expressions of God's love in the world. That Christmas in Zambia, the people whose church we attended had nothing to give but hospitality, and yet in that giving, they offered us something more precious than all the presents piled around the Christmas tree.

To give of ourselves, and to be open to what the other has to give, is to escape from the economy of starvation that rules our world, and to glimpse that realm of infinite freedom and love that lies on the far side of every human transaction. The true gift holds nothing back. Because Mary gave herself, Christ became truly man, and because God gave himself, Christ is truly God. Christ embodies the totality of Mary's humanity, and the totality of God's divinity. In the proliferating verbiage of our technological age, amidst the technicolour thrills of youth culture and the brazen banality of the popular media, Christianity has a message that is unchanging in its joy, in its materiality, in its liberating power.

The Word was made flesh, and lived among us.


1. Ciaron O'Reilly, 'A Seamless Garment Pilgrimage' in Respect Life, The Seamless Garment Network, U.K. Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1997, pp.3-6, 3.

2. Tertullian, 'On the Flesh of Christ' in The Writings of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus, Vol. II, tr. Peter Holmes, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library - Translations of the Writings of the Fathers, eds. Rev. Alexander Roberts, DD and James Donaldson, LLD, Vol. XV, The Writings of Tertullian (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1890), pp.163-214, 170-1.

3. St Augustine, Sermon 184, Christmas Day (before 396) in Sermons III/6 (184-229Z) on the Liturgical Seasons, tr. and notes Edmund Hill OP, ed. John E. Rotelle OSA (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), p.21.

4. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, I am My Body (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1994).

5. Jeremy Seabrook, 'A Curious Mysticism' in New Internationalist, October 1997, pp.12-14, 12.

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