Receive to Give (December 2006)

December 2006



During the Christmas season, I am often intrigued by a particular passage in the story of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, while they carried Jesus and John the Baptist in their wombs. (Cf. Luke 1:39-45) The verse that seizes my attention quotes Elizabeth saying, “The child in my womb leaped for joy.”

Each time I read this, I marvel at the joy that preceded, surrounded and followed the birth of Jesus. Mary and Elizabeth, the angels and the shepherds, the wise men and others too rejoiced in the coming of the child who “would be a fulfilment of what was spoken by the Lord.” (Luke 1: 45)

Somehow, to grasp the mystery of this joy amid the darkness and rejection that we know of the time when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 14) is to touch his sacred heart.

To meditate upon the joy of this blessed encounter between Elizabeth and Mary, and between the yet unborn John and Jesus, we must set aside our usual analysis and just appreciate the sheer gratuity of this beatific moment. This encounter is an intimate call to contemplative entry into the splendour of our Christian faith.

Reflecting on this recently, I recalled the prayer of Saint Francis that says, “It is in giving that we receive.” There are countless ways to understand this beautiful phrase. But the reverse is also true. I sense the time just before Christmas is also one in which we must accept that, “It is in receiving that we give.”

The first point is simply this: we can only give out of what we have. And all that we have that is good comes from God. If that is so, receiving from God is the precondition for giving that is good.

The second point is that when we receive from Jesus, we are then able to give in joy. We give spontaneously and lovingly to family and our closest friends with heartfelt delight. We plan and prepare gifts with hearts aflame. Too often, however, the circle of giving is rather small. Of course, we cannot afford to distribute gifts beyond this circle. But our faith exhorts us to spread a supportive word or a gentle smile far beyond. We believe that it is in giving that we receive, and we would like to give far and wide.

What prevents us from doing so? What keeps our focus limited to the friendly and the familiar? Part of the answer may be our inability to grasp what made John leap for joy in the womb at a presence eyes could not see – a presence so strong that he could feel it with all of his being.

In order to act with generosity, we must experience gratitude. Gratitude supposes that we are conscious of all that we’ve already received from others but most especially from God who showers us constantly with abundant grace.

The only way to experience that gratitude is to take a step back from our harried lives in order to become aware of our identity, of our purpose, and of the often-imperceptible ways in which we’ve been sustained in our lives. Almost inevitably, the more we think about it, the more we realize how blessed we are. That awareness eventually lets gratitude bloom, rooted in the soil of humble simplicity, and the magnificent flowering of generosity.

But even among those who are already motivated to give selflessly, it is normal for human energy to diminish and for perplexing questions about the mission to rise. The next thing that happens is that time spent in prayer declines, particularly prayer in silent stillness.

In the stillness of prayer, the almost imperceptible presence of God, as in the presence of Jesus in the womb of Mary, is felt in the very depth of our being. In those fleeting moments, our joy is complete.

It is from that fountain of joy that transformative giving flows. It spouts a stream of living water, which, once received, can be given unreservedly to those near and far. It is in receiving it that we give most abundantly.

And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. (John 1: 16)

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Another vital aspect of this scene from Luke’s nativity narrative is the image of Mary carrying the Word in her womb. Mary is the model of what we are invited to be: bearers of the Good News.

“Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11:28) As Mary said yes to the angel Gabriel – yes to the invitation to accept the Word of God and to carry it lovingly so that the world could be saved by it – we too are invited to say yes to the Good News of God. We urged to cherish it in our heart so that it may grow and be given to a broken world in such need of truth and love.

The great medieval Franciscan theologian, Saint Bonaventure, writes, “Not only is the Virgin blessed, but all who follow her as well. And who are these? All who hear the word of God and fulfill it.

“The Blessed Virgin, valiant and holy, brought forth that price by the holiness of her total generosity. Thus Gabriel said: Blessed art Thou among women…The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. And therefore the One to be born of you holy will be called Son of God (Luke 1:28-35).
“Saint Augustine comments: The Holy Spirit is love, and although given with His gifts, is not a gift inseparable from any of them, except the gift of love. All the other virtues are common to the good and the bad; the love of God and neighbour is the privilege of the saints and the devout; it alone suffices.

“Thus Hugh of St. Victor remarks: Because the love of God uniquely burned in the mind of the Virgin, so she worked wonders in her body. The love of charity preserves from corruption. Thus the One to be born of you, through a pure and immaculate love, will be called the Son of God. As from the love of a man and woman is born a carnal son, so from the love of the Virgin and God is born the Son of God.”

The underlying message is that we are urged to carry the word of God in our hearts in two ways. First, we are invited to allow it to transform us. In a way, this means to allow the word to become incarnate anew in our daily lives. The breath of God, his Holy Sprit, changes the carrier into a living tabernacle that radiates goodness and virtue.

Second, we are urged to share the word, to give birth to it for the sake of others as well as ourselves. This need not be through “preachy” proclamations but can be most effective in action that is rooted in the wisdom of the Word. (You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. – Matthew 5: 13-14)

Sharing the Good News can also take the form of simple testimony regarding how much we feel loved by God and how present he is in our daily lives.

We can only imagine what the world would be like had Mary refused to give her courageous and generous consent to God’s plan. She said yes. What are the consequences if we say no? What if we refuse to consent? Before deciding to turn our back on the vocation that we all share, we should understand the immediate and long-term consequences of turning away.

There is surely no mission as fundamental to human activity as spreading the Good News of hope and love, peace and joy, truth and meaning. If this is so, it is by its very nature something that each individual must give systematically, in each action that we take. And it all begins by receiving the Word.