How about giving yourself the best gift for Christmas?
In French, there’s a saying: “Charity begins at home,” or literally, “Well-ordered charity begins with oneself” (« Charité, bien ordonnée, commence par soi-même. »). French speakers use this proverb to say, in short: I deserve to have such and such a thing, it is not only for others!
If you ask around, no matter what the beliefs of the people you talk to, they will tell you that Christmas is the season of giving. If an alien explorer were to land on earth at this time of year in most of the western world, he or she would write in their notebook that as December approaches, humans become frantic about gift giving, their delivery systems for goods and services are already overheating in mid-November and the queues and crowds in shops become incredibly busy. The e-mails about promotions multiply, gift wrapping paper is sold by the kilometre, and the headaches about what to give to Auntie So-and-so, to my friend whom I don’t know so well, or to the colleague who was drawn for Secret Santa, mean that the paracetamol sellers are also having their ‘most wonderful time of the year.’
Well, I admit it: as much as I appreciate gifts and like to give them, I am perplexed by the pandemonium in the shopping malls and the marketing steamroller at Christmas time. Not that I’m being flatly critical of ‘capitalist society.’ It’s great to invent objects and services to please other people. To underline their value. To satisfy the passions of a friend, to encourage a colleague in an area where she excels. Our Christian understanding of work reminds us that one of the vocations of human beings is to work creatively with excellence in order to extend blessing to others, as part of our ‘avodah’ (one of the two words used in the Bible to refer to work). If you work in companies or businesses, many of which hope to make a big chunk of their annual turnover at Christmas time, remember that it is in part, or at least in principle, this beautiful and good God-given and God-intended ‘avodah’ that you are pursuing by joining in the mission of the organisation for which you (or your friends, or your family members) work.
But I return to my French proverb:
“Well-ordered charity begins with oneself.”
And so I could tell you that in the hustle and bustle of the ‘season of giving,’ there is still a risk of forgetting yourself. You have probably heard about the growing trend towards self-care and all the things that prompt us to love ourselves, to admire ourselves, to be tolerant of ourselves, to listen to ourselves, to do good to ourselves. That we are the most important person to take care of before impacting the world around us. That the world is missing something if we don’t play our part in it. At Christmas, therefore, we should give the best gift to ourselves! “Well-ordered charity begins with oneself.”
I’m not going to lie: this self-adulation movement also makes me uncomfortable. It encourages a form of navel-gazing and entitlement that can easily have real toxic effects on our psyches and especially on our human relationships and the construction of our life in society. So beware of all those easy Instagram messages and slogans plastered on consumer products that are, in reality, more about selling you something than about making you take care of yourself.
That said, let’s discern what’s real at the heart of this idea, and what’s important about us at Christmas. It’s not what’s on the shelves, or in our TikTok feed, or under the ‘Promotions’ tab in our emails.
“Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given”
What seems incredible, and what inspires the tradition of Christmas presents in the first place, is that a sublime gift has been given to us through the Incarnation. God came to the rescue of his people as he had promised, in order to fulfil his plan from all eternity: to BLESS. To bless humanity in Christ, and to recapitulate everything in him. Yes, Christmas is the feast that commemorates our blessing, for Jesus gave himself to us as a gift as a fragile being, in a fragile family, in a fragile place — a simple stable. The Ancients rightly saw this as a prefiguration of God giving himself to the fragility and violence of the world on the Cross, in a work of atonement.
Let us realise what this means about the value God gives us: “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.” Unto us! Yes, we are worth it, even if we are not. A delicious paradox of the Christian faith. Let us embrace it!
God values us far more than the pithy sayings and motivational phrases of our social networks and preachers can say!
So, for this Christmas, or more generally for our times of meditation, let us dare to contemplate this God who loves us, welcomes us, gives himself to us, sees in us a being to be redeemed, to be transformed, and gives us his Spirit to live with him and through him. Let us take the time to do this! I repeat: let us take the time to do this! Let us put aside the artificial devices that we tirelessly seek to tell ourselves of our value and let us place these ersatz devices in the right perspective.
Let’s put aside our work, our frenzies on social networks and messaging applications. Time for a break.
Let’s put aside our overwork and our subservience to the expectations of others. Time for a Sabbath. Let us give ourselves the best Christmas gift of all: to welcome for ourselves the forever true proclamation — “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.”
Time for worship. Time to live.