CHOOSING THE RIGHT GIFT
I recently read about some research on people's attitudes toward gift-giving. (John Tierney, “In Pursuit of the Perfect Gift? It’s a Lot Closer than You Think,” NY Times Dec. 12, 2011.) Social scientists have done various experiments and interviews probing the complex interactions that underlie the practice of gift-giving. Some of what they found out disappointed me.
One of the findings that particularly struck me was that although giving a gift that you found after hours of painstaking thoughtful shopping may make YOU feel great as the giver, the recipient is far less likely to share your enthusiasm about the surprise gift, and would, truth be told, much rather have received something that was on his or her wish list. One researcher put it this way:
“… The recipient usually doesn’t know how much time and effort you put into finding just the right thing, so it doesn’t necessarily strike them as particularly thoughtful. Instead, your idea of the right thing may strike them as just wrong.”
Then there’s the whole thing about online gift registries; do you dare ignore them? “With a gift registry, they’re telling you what they want, and you’re saying, ‘No, you want something else, because I know more about you than you know about yourself.’ The result is not joyous gratitude, as Dr. Flynn found in a series of studies with Francesca Gino of Harvard.”
Do you like to be creative and surprise people with your gifts? Well, consider this (from the same article): "When married couples were asked about the wedding gifts they’d received, they reported liking the ones from the registry more than the unsolicited ones. When people were given money to buy presents for one another on Amazon, the gifts chosen from the recipient’s wish list were more appreciated than the surprises."
This got me trying to image what Christmas would be like if there were no gift-giving involved. I was surprised at how much of the celebration would still be left if we were to drop the custom of exchanging presents. Many of us have lots of other ways of marking the celebration, including rituals such as the Advent wreath, the putting up of the manger scene, trimming the Christmas tree, putting up decorations, cooking and baking, and enjoying Christmas music -- and this isn’t even counting going to church!
In addition, visiting family and friends at Christmas without the exchanging of gifts might help us to appreciate more the deep message of the Nativity of our Lord: God’s becoming present to us in the flesh points us toward a more conscious and more loving presence to one another. What if instead of worrying about presents we were to concentrate on this new kind of “Christmas Presence” and become a gift to each person around us?
So dropping the shopping part of Christmas would actually enhance the celebration. Of course it would bankrupt the whole retail sector of the U.S. economy in the space of two months, so it might not happen any time soon!
GIVING GOD A GIFT?
All of this thinking about gifts made me reflect on the idea of giving God a gift. (Talk about finding a gift for someone who has everything!) The idea is a very old one, of course, prompted by the gospel account of the magi coming to Bethlehem to present their gifts to the newborn King.
Here is a lovely meditation on the theme:
The off'rings of the Eastern kings of old
Unto our Lord were incense, myrrh and gold;
Incense because a God; gold as a king;
And myrrh as to a dying man they bring.
Instead of incense (Blessed Lord) if we
Can send a sigh or fervent prayer to thee,
Instead of myrrh if we can but provide
Tears that from penitential eyes do slide,
And though we have no gold; if for our part
We can present thee with a broken heart
Thou wilt accept: and say those Eastern kings
Did not present thee with more precious things.
…………………-. Nathaniel Wanley, 1634-1680
So, I started thinking about what gift I might give God for Christmas. Maybe I could be extra nice to a certain brother monk, or be a little more careful to avoid distractions during my meditation period... Then I suddenly thought: Does God have a gift registry?
Some entrepreneurs have picked up the popular wish for an orderly and practical way to get the gifts you want and need while avoiding the totally useless and unwanted ones. Enter the Christmas Gift Registry! This spin-off of the “bridal registry” and the “baby registry” is a grownups’ version of mailing your Christmas list to Santa c/o the North Pole. If it sounds a little tacky and unsentimental to publish a list of what you really want for Christmas, you have to admit that it is at least extremely practical – and we Americans are famous for our pragmatism.
So then it hit me: instead of giving God what I want to give, what if Jesus had a Divine Gift Registry intended just for me where I could find out with complete certainty what he wants from me this Christmas? If I could access such a list on the internet would I dare to look at it or would I just keep trying to surprise the Lord with my own ideas of what he wants from me?
The researcher’s words quoted above now took on an ominous tone, “With a gift registry, they’re telling you what they want, and you’re saying, ‘No, you want something else, because I know more about you than you know about yourself.’” I asked myself, “Do I have the guts to ask the Christ Child what He really wants from me this Christmas? And if I were to find out, would I be willing to give him what he was aking for?” Maybe I’d be better off not knowing.
Quiet introspective prayer, the prayerful reading of scripture, and the insights of a good soul-friend can all be pretty effective ways of accessing Jesus's Gift Registry, personalized uniquely for me. I pray that I’ll have the courage to consult mine and then, of course, have the courage to give him at least one of the things on the divine list!