The gift of self

We give because God gave. That’s how Christmas works … right?

God gave us his Son, so every December, we imitate him by giving iPads, sweaters and fruit baskets. Our rushing from store to store and perusing the hottest retail deals online, spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the process, is all our way of imaging God, the One in whose image we were made … or is it?

The answer is yes … and no.

On the one hand, yes, God did give us his Son on that first Christmas long ago. He gave out of love, as he always does. And he gave generously, as he always gives. God is a loving, generous Giver, and our desire to give generously to those we love is indeed one of the ways we image our Father in heaven.

But in Bethlehem, God didn’t just give us a gift. God gave us himself. God was the gift. He became a gift for us — a tiny baby, lying in a manger.

He expects us to follow suit. That’s what he really wants from us this Christmas. He doesn’t want us to just give gifts. He wants us to become gifts.

In that, Blessed John Paul II wrote in The Theology of the Body, “the human person … fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (15:1).

In other words, becoming a gift is what life is all about. That’s what we’re all about. We were made to become gifts. We were made to give ourselves away in love to God and our fellow man. That’s what God did in the Incarnation, what God does in the Holy Eucharist, and what God has always done in eternity, where, as a Holy Trinity, he lives a life of self-gift. So, as his living images, that’s what we’re called to do, too.

“Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude,” the pope explained, “as in the moment of communion” (9:3).

That all sounds good in theory. But how does it work in reality? How do we become gifts? How, as the Christmas season passes into the New Year, can we heed John Paul’s words and fulfill “the very meaning” of our “being and existence” (14:2)?

Give your presence

Give it to God first. Go to Mass. Go to confession. Sit before the Tabernacle or in a quiet corner of the house. Just be with him. Then, give your presence to others. Be with the ones you love. Come home from work early. Take a few extra days off. Show up when you say you will. Use greater discretion about the yeses you give to parties, meetings, activities and projects, and make more room on your calendar for those you love. You don’t have to do or plan anything fancy. You just have to be you and be there. To those who love you, that’s what matters most.

Give your time

Don’t hold on to more than you need. Quiet is good. Rest is good. Exercise, sewing and even the occasional “Breaking Bad” marathon can all be helpful for the soul. But only in right measure. When a friend nursing a broken heart calls, turn off the TV and answer the phone. When a weary spouse returns late from work, put down the book and talk with him. When the unexpected guest arrives at the door, welcome her in. Let go of your plans for your time, and see all time as kairos  — time given to you to do God’s will.

Give your attention

Look people in the eye when you talk to them. Think more about what they have to say than what you want to say. Put down the smartphone in the meeting. Turn it off in the restaurant. Leave it in the car when you go to Mass, and stay off it when you drive the kids home from school. Pay attention to people more than screens — logging off Facebook for the bulk of the day and turning the television off during dinner. At parties ask more questions of others than you answer about yourself. Essentially, attend to the people in front of you, seeing them for who they are: other Christs.

Give your prayers

It’s easy to confuse prayer with letters to Santa, turning conversations with God into petitions for our wants and needs. But God isn’t Santa. He already knows what you need and what you want, so you don’t have to spend all your time with him detailing what he already knows. You should, however, spend some of your time detailing others’ needs and wants. Both in asking us to pray for others and in promising to answer those prayers, God gives us a great gift. He allows us to be his co-workers, helping bring about others’ salvation and sanctification (2 Cor 6:1). Don’t waste that gift. Say Rosaries for sick friends. Have Masses said for siblings who’ve left the Church. Sit before the Blessed Sacrament and intercede for all the needs that flash through your Facebook newsfeed. Wherever you are, pray for others and own the dignity God has given you.

Give your help

Give your help to your parish: When they ask for volunteer catechists, trustees or snow shovelers, step forward if you can. Give your help to a good cause: Skip the shopping on Saturday and pray at an abortion clinic instead. Give your help to a friend: Offer to watch her kids so she can finish her Christmas shopping. Give your help to a stranger: Buy a sandwich for the homeless guy outside your office. Give your help to someone in need: Write a check, make a meal, fix a front porch. And when you give, give with a smile.

Give your praise

Don’t keep silent in the face of a job well done. Praise your son, your daughter, your spouse, your secretary, even your boss. Tell the stranger on the street you like her dress. Tell the guy ringing the Salvation Army bell that you appreciate his generosity. Tell your mother you love her Christmas roast and tell your father you love his Christmas cocktails. If you’re thinking something nice about someone, say it. Don’t leave your friends wondering why you like them or your girlfriend wondering why you love her. While you’re at it, praise God too. Tell him he’s good and glorious, brilliant and beautiful, kind and generous. Thank him for all he’s given you and all he’s helped you to give. Also, trust that in that thanking, he’ll give you the grace to give even more.

Give your life

Commit. Commit to the relationship: Ask the girl to marry you. Commit to your spouse: Let go of “his” and “hers” and discover the beauty of “ours.” Commit to children: Welcome new life into your home. Commit to the priesthood or a religious vocation: Give seminary or the novitiate a go. Most of all, commit to God: Obey him, get to know him, and greet every obstacle with the words of the Blessed Virgin, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Give it all

Last but not least, give it all — your presence, time, attention, prayers, help, praise and life — to friend and foe alike. God came to save both Jews and Gentiles. He’s the God who makes the sun shine on the good and the evil and lets the rain fall on the just and unjust (Mt 5:45). In Bethlehem, he became a gift for us not because we deserved that gift, but because we needed him. We needed him. And just the same, the world needs us. It needs the gift God made us to be. To become that gift is to live the fullness of the theology of the body. It’s to live the fullness of the Catholic life. It is, in a sense, to repeat the miracle of the first Christmas, every day in every situation. There is no greater gift we can give — on Christmas Day or any day.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor and the author of “These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body” (Emmaus Road, $13.95).