A theology of gift is an appropriate reflection for the season of Christmas. It presents us with insights about the giving nature of God. Gift giving is self-giving. A theology of gift, then, helps to tell the story of the Son and Spirit as the Father’s gifts to the world.
There is a trinitarian theology of gift in the same way there is a trinitarian theology of communication. It is what theologians call a “first theology” — something basic to understanding God himself and the phenomena of creation and redemption.
The Giver. The Gift. The Given. the Perfect Giver (God the Father) gave the perfect gift (God the Son), through the perfect means (conceived of the God the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary). The perfect One comes as perfection through perfection.
The Giver is God the Father. But what motivated the Father to give his only begotten Son? St. John’s Gospel tells us: love.
The word love is used 53 times in John’s first epistle. In fact, it is used more by John than any other writer in the Bible. Brian Thomas notes the word here is not eros, but agape. So when we read of God’s love or the command to love one another, the reference is not to sentimental, sensual, or a social love. These forms of love have their place, but that’s not the focus here. Instead, agape is held up as a supreme divine attribute. Love turns out to be not simply a thing or action, but a characteristic of God himself. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (v.8). Basic to a knowledge of God is that he gives out of fatherly love.
But that leads us to ask, What exactly did he give? Is his great gift revealed to us in the Bible salvation? Is it eternal life? Is it peace? The answer to this question is the driving point of the entire Bible. Following the high treason of Genesis 3, the story surprisingly continues and it continues because the Father, out of his great love, originally intended to give something to the apex of his creation — human beings. And this loving Father would not be denied in his desire to give a supreme gift to the supreme act of his creation. And so the story continues out of necessity because the Father will prevail in his love expressed through his great gift-giving.
It is here that a theology of gift enters. The Father is the Giver. What he gives is nothing other than himself. The Bible’s theology of gift-giving is about giving from yourself, actually giving yourself through your gift; where the gift is an extension of yourself and the embodiment of yourself. It says, “I give this to you. Receive this gift from me as if I were giving me to you in and through this gift.” The gift that one gives is a placeholder for the giver. A shortcut for our understanding of the theology of gift might be this: “Receive me in this: this gift is me.”
The God’s gift of giving God, then, encompasses every dimension of how we usually understand and interpret gift-giving. This may be best illustrated through a quick look at the five ways in which we normally engage in gift-giving.
- There is intentional or promissory gift-giving. Giving the gift of an engagement ring is a good example. There is an intention, bound up with promise and hope, in the relationship between the Proposer and the Proposee that is expressed in the giving of an engagement ring. It has the power to change the status and standing of the individuals involved by what lies ahead because this kind of giving involves every dimension of the giver. How much more so in the giving of a wedding band? That’s the idea: there’s something intentional and promissory in this kind of gift-giving bound up with the future and the perpetuity of self-giving to another.
- There is physical or corporeal gift-giving. Food exemplifies this kind of gift-giving as a form of self-giving — something that physically and corporeally encases the preparer of foods in the meal in which you receive them. They have touched and intimately handled something that is put inside of you, something meant to give you delight, as well as nourishment and, so, life. This form of gift-giving requires time, consideration, and sacrifice, and bespeaks of bonding and intimacy with the gift-giver through ingesting (as it were) them through their food.
- Third, there is heartfelt and vulnerable gift-giving. Here the idea of monetary value is diminished as unimportant. Great givers may be so despite poverty. Such giving is vulnerable because the items may not be of economic value and yet are invaluable because through them the giver externalizes their heart. The gifts themselves, as they stood in and of themselves, could be easily despised and dismissed as “cheap.” However, because this person gives them, and in the vulnerable manner in which they give, the gift is priceless. Jesus recognizes this kind of gift-giving when the poor widow adds mere pennies to the temple treasury, and was praised for giving more than all others because she gave from her penury with a heartfelt and vulnerable gift.
- Fourth, there is penultimate gift-giving. Two things come to mind: giving blood or an organ, e.g., a living donor giving a kidney. That kind of giving is extraordinary and life-altering because it is bound-up with the giving of life.
- Penultimate gifts are eclipsed only by ultimate gift-giving done through the giving of one’s life and one’s body. This ultimate kind of gift-giving is of two sorts: the sacrificial kind, such that occurs in heroic acts in war and rescue; and the matrimonial kind, where one gives oneself totally in the life-making matrimonial act and risks all through the life-threatening delivery of childbirth. It is because of ultimate self-giving that we, as a society, and indeed all societies so highly venerate and esteem war heroes and mothers.
The kind of gift that rolls these five kinds of gifts into one would have to be the perfect gift in which nothing is lacking. It would be the greatest possible gift. And the greatest, perfect gift God the Father could give is himself in and through the Son. For the Father, as Jesus said in Matthew 5, is perfect: “be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And as the Father is, so is the Son. This is borne out by Jesus’ own self-disclosing statements about himself in relation to the Father: “He who has seen me has seen the Father”; “the words that I speak are not my own by the Father’s”; “the works that I do are not my own but the Father’s”; indeed Jesus says, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” St. Paul bears out this truth when he says that in Jesus the Son we have “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Thus, giving the gift of the Son is the greatest act of self-giving possible by the Father.
Divine self-giving is the only thing that encompasses the totality of such multi-dimensional gift-giving. Divine self-giving is in fact what the divine economy of redemption is all about. In fact, it is the biblical story in a nutshell, bringing to mind the promise made to Abram in Genesis 15:1 where God says, “I will be your exceedingly great reward” (my translation).
But this is where we might think that perhaps the greatest gift God could give is salvation or righteousness or peace or holiness or eternal life or resurrection or truth, indeed, the gift of justification itself. And here is where many think about these wonderful gifts of God as if they were distinct and particulate things, as if they were things invented or created ex nihilo by God, as if God had a shelf full of canisters labeled “Grace,” “Righteousness,” Holiness,” “Peace,” “Eternal Life,” and the like. But they are not created things (gratia creata); they are uncreated (gratia increata). They are of God as God is in himself. The love of God or the holiness of God is not something created by God but rather attributes of God himself.
All of these things, then, are really nothing other than the Son of God, embodied in the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. Christ is our salvation (Luke 2:30). Christ is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6). Christ is our peace (John 14:27). Christ is the resurrection (John 11:25). Christ is the eternal life (John 14:6). Christ is our justification and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30).
For the Father to give us Christ the Son is to give us the greatest, perfect gift conceivable.
And so we have come full circle. Jesus Christ is the living embodiment of the multi-dimensional giving of the Father.
- There is Intentional or Promissory gift-giving. Covenant in his blood. The Bridegroom pledged to his Bride the Church.
- There is physical or corporeal gift-giving. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ is physically and corporeally present, giving himself to you in this supreme gift. Through Holy Communion you are intimately touched and handled by the One who enters inside you.
- There is heartfelt and vulnerable gift-giving. Incarnation. This looks weak and cheap but is exceedingly valuable, comes with great risk and profound humility, and condescension on the part of God.
- There is penultimate gift-giving. The giving blood that is bound-up with the giving of life.
- And there is the ultimate gift-giving: Christ’s life and body, meeting both sorts: the sacrificial kind, such that occurs in heroic acts in war and rescue; and the matrimonial kind, where one gives oneself totally in the life-making matrimonial act and risks all through the life-threatening delivery of childbirth.
A right understanding of the theology of gift cannot but lead us to contentment with the Father’s loving gift of the Son, who is for us the all-in-all (Col. 3:11). And so the message of Christmas and all gift-giving may be encapsulated in John’s summary of God’s perfect gift that brings joy to the world: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16).