Merry Christmas!

Dearest friends,

Once again, we find ourselves in that blessed season of Christmas!  I want to extend to all of you and your families a most happy, holy, and wonderful Christmas.  I have been spending mine at home with the old family.  We’ve been drinking 1792 Bourbon and talking about reality.

Our good friend (soon to be Dr.) Bret Saunders–who you may know from the Grafton Street Band as the good looking banjo player and egg shaker extrodinaire–has authored this article for the Christmas season.  I enjoyed it tremendously and found it an insightful and warm meditation.  I hope that you enjoy.

The Gift and Excess of the Incarnation: Toward a Theology of Christmas

Bret J Saunders

Due to the legacy of St. Nicholas, if not also to the corruption of secular materialism, various gift-giving practices predominate at Christmas more than any other holiday. Perhaps it is worthwhile to suggest some philosophical and theological reflections on gift-giving—to rescue or protect the genuine Christian form of the practice from the shallow, banal versions into which it easily slides. To free or protect us from un-reflective enslavement to custom, in what follows we will pursue the the theological and philosophical basis for gift-giving.

The critique of gift-giving by postmodern French philosopher Jacques Derrida served to awaken theology to the nature of giving. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Derrida pointed out that the structure of ancient culture was built on the ‘economy’ of the gift, meaning that communal life was structured and energized by the rules of gift-exchange. Derrida emphasized that giving was trapped within a ‘cycle’ of exchange, which required something to be given in return for any gift. He suggested that such a cycle predominates even in modern society. We always feel ‘obligated’ to ‘do something’ in return for a good received, even if only a ‘thank-you note.’ To Derrida this fact proves the ‘impossibility’ of the gift’s reception: a gift is always-already being ‘returned’ inasmuch as it has to be reciprocated (the gift never comes to rest). I think Derrida’s criticism is not mere sophistry but indicates a real danger. After all, how easy it is to slip into a mode of shopping-wrapping-giving-receiving that is driven merely or mostly by obligation. Even if I am too distant from someone to have a real sense of an appropriate or fitting gift, even if the gift I give bears little or no mark of my own personality, still I have to find ‘something’ for everyone at the Christmas gathering because I know they will have ‘something’ for me. I would be ashamed to come empty handed. The tragic necessity of reciprocity disrupts the freedom and finality (the solid goodness without negation, without deflected attention) that Derrida justly assumes to be the essence of the true gift (cf. Mt. 10:8b).

Several Christian theologians have answered Derrida with their own criticisms of his presentation. French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion denies that giving has to be trammeled by reciprocity. For example, the giver could be ‘bracketed’ or suspended if the gift simply appears ‘from out of the blue.’ In fact, St. Nicholas was (ironically) famous for giving in secret, so that recipients couldn’t even send a thank-you note. When the giver vanishes behind the gift-basket that simply appears on my front porch, this anonymity protects the freedom (randomness, surprise) and finality (sheer goodness with no strings attached) of the genuine gift. Like a child who temporarily but easily forgets his parents in the face of the new toy, I am free to enjoy the gift as gift, as given absolutely because ‘absolved’ from any expectations of return. Any wondering about the giver’s identity always rebounds—brings my attention back—to the gift itself.

The British Anglican theologian John Milbank denies that reciprocity has to trammel giving. A thank-you note or a hug do not ‘return’ the gift or preclude a moment of submersion in its enjoyment. A secondary gift need not thwart the primary gift if the former does not exactly repeat the latter. Milbank believes that “non-identical reciprocity” upholds both the freedom and finality of genuine giving: I am free to lose myself in a moment of enjoyment and ‘return’ thanks in any way I choose, when I choose. Implicit in this freedom is the possibility of expressing oneself—one’s own personality—in the (re)gift: I am free to give myself, to present myself through my present. The more I subscribe to the cultural rules of gift-exchange, rules legislated by mass culture and mere custom in the form of Hallmark cards and kitsch, the less I present myself in person through the gift.

This point opens our discussion to the theological domain of the gift presided over by the Incarnation as the greatest gift and model for proper human giving. Of course in the Incarnation God gave Himself in person. So the Gospels, especially St. Matthew and John, are permeated with language of the gift. In the trinitarian reciprocity of the Incarnation and the revelatory career of Jesus, there is a double movement in which both gift and giver vanish and reveal themselves. On the one hand, in giving the Son the paternal giver vanishes (Jn. 1:18b; 5:37), allowing Christ freedom from the law and freedom to improvise within the bounds of the ‘first commandment.’ His vanishing also secures the finality of Christ’s presence in the (gift of the) Spirit (Mt. 28:20b; Heb. 13:5). Thus in a certain respect the father gives in secret behind the scenes of history (cf. Deut 26:26). On the other hand, however, one may also say that the son vanishes behind the father he (re)presents. The father gives and the son receives works (Jn. 5:19, 30; 17:6), life and authority (5: 26-27, 43). Christ repeatedly emphasizes the totality of the Father’s gift: “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand” (3: 35; 5: 19-20,30; cf. Mt. 28:18). In repeatedly emphasizing his own reception Christ gestures beyond himself—empties himself, becomes a transparent window to the father’s own gift and the truth that “every perfect gift is from above” (Ja. 1:17; cf. I Cor. 4:7). The son disappears that the father may give himself in person (Jn. 1:18), manifesting his own personality as the constantly giving “Father of lights.”

So the father too shows/gives himself as final and free (cf. Mt. 24:36).

It would seem that Milbank’s resolution to the “impossibility” of the gift best fits the reciprocal vanishing/presence of the Incarnation that we see in Scripture (whose presentation would only be complete with the inclusion of the Holy Spirit [Jn. 1:32]). But here is a final point to make about the divine gift, which is that God gives in excess. First, in the sense that the Father gives everything he has to the son, withholding nothing (all authority, all power) except knowledge of the timing of the Second Coming (Mt. 24:36). Furthermore, in every ‘cycle’ of gift-exchange throughout redemptive history the Father and Son increase each other’s glory (Jn. 17:4-5; Phil. 2:9-11). Finally, this superabundant giving within the Trinity is manifest in God’s giving to us (Mt. 25:29; cf. 13:12; Mk. 4:24-25; Jn. 10:10). In the father’s name Christ gave so much that all the books of the earth would overflow with his works (Jn. 21:25).

How then must we then give? How do we, like St. Nicholas, vanish behind our gifts yet at the same time manifest ourselves through them, presenting ourselves somehow ‘in person’ to our recipients? One thing to notice is the recipients of our gifts vanish inasmuch as every gift is addressed ultimately to God through them (Mt. 25:40). Every face around the tree on Christmas morning melts away to reveal the face of Christ, so that we may receive glory from the Father (Mt. 6:1,4) just as Christ receives glory from the Father for giving himself to us. But then how do we give ‘ourselves’? Usually our gift-choosing is determined according to the personality, interests or appetites of the recipient. I may be a poor cook but I will buy you the fudge you crave. I can’t play music but I will buy you the album you want. These gifts deliver not me to you but you to yourself; they allow you moments of free enjoyment but fail to open up a way of self-revelation between us: they give but not in excess, not “more abundantly,” not “pressed down, shaken together, running over.” If we gave according to our gifts, which is after all in accord with the being of Christ’s body, then we would trade the momentary freedom/finality of the mass-produced product for the rich depth of relationship opened by the gift I bake or compose out of my own passion, skill and personality.

If we give in this way, founded upon such a transcendental basis, our reciprocation would always be non-identical andl always in excess:“Give and it will be given to you . . .” (Lk. 6:38).

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