I continue to recall with great fondness a few of the many gifts that I have received over the years. These particular presents stand out as instances of having been deeply loved by the people close to me, and their gifts continue to shape the person I am today.
The first example comes from the summer before my freshman year at Franciscan. One of my closest friends, who lived on my street all through our adolescence, was packing up her family’s SUV to go off to college for the first time. I was intimidated by the thought of moving away from each other and inevitably growing apart because of these circumstances.
When I went up the street to say goodbye, she handed me a small white box with a ribbon — an unexpected gift. Inside were a homemade friendship bracelet, an old postcard of her grandmother’s from the ’50s, a miniature canvas painted with a verse from the Psalms, a notebook and a sticker.
After opening her gift and hugging her goodbye, I sat down on my porch and cried on the front steps for 20 minutes.
I was very aware of how old we were getting, and that we were growing up, and that we were growing apart. But this gift, so simple yet so thoughtfully extravagant, proved to me in a concrete way that this friend still cared deeply about me and about our friendship. She knew me well and she knew how to honor our history.
When Dr. Maria Wolter taught on the concept of gift-giving during Theology of the Body class in Austria last fall, I immediately remembered this gift and the way it had simultaneously broken my heart and put it back together, and how it continued to remind me of how much I am loved.
“The hermeneutics of the gift” is John Paul II’s fancy way of saying that Scripture teaches us what a gift is and what it can do to the human heart. The phrase occurs regularly in any academic discussion of Theology of the Body, but made no sense to me until I realized that the point isn’t the tricky term ‘hermeneutics,’ but the more important ‘gift.’
Why is the gift so important? Because the human person — and by extension, his body, which is himself — is first and foremost a gift from God. In fact, my own self is the very best gift I could ever receive from God, second only to receiving his own self-gift.
Think about it. We do not make ourselves. We cannot bring ourselves into existence, or cause our hearts to beat again, and again, and again. God does that for us out of love.
We are also entirely unique. Each of us possesses an “incommunicable I,” which cannot be fully expressed to any other person. No one can get inside my head and experience what I experience in the same way that I do. What a truly one-of-a-kind gift!
Now, it is important to understand that a gift must be freely given and freely received. No one is obliged to give a gift, and it cannot be thrust upon someone. However, the receiver ought to rejoice in and give thanks for the gift. This free gift and sincere gratitude establish a relationship between the giver and the recipient and strengthen any pre-existing relationship.
We cannot thrust ourselves on others, or expect them to pour themselves out for us in return. But we can offer ourselves as gift to our friends, family and strangers by little kindnesses, or just by being present to someone who needs it. Remember, the best gift you can give someone is yourself.
All of this may sound fancy or obvious or frivolous, but herein lies the great mystery of creation: all of creation is gift. Man is gift. Woman is gift. Christ is gift. Friends are gifts. You and I are gifts, and we are meant to share this immense gift of ourselves with the world.
With this biblical understanding of the gift, we can receive ourselves and God’s self as the greatest gifts we could receive from him. He offers himself to us in creation and the Eucharist, establishing a vibrant relationship with each of us.
So how will you receive yourself as gift today? I invite you to “go into your inner room,” close the door and thank the Lord for the great gift of life that he has given you and for his own self-gift in the Eucharist and on the cross. Then go, be a gift to the world around you by being fully, freely yourself!
“Man appears in creation as the one who received the world as a gift, and it can also be said that the world received man as a gift” (papal audience, Jan. 2, 1980).