Advent season is upon us, and I find myself reflecting on two seemingly polar opposite concepts in my prayer: sin and gift. I’m doing the spiritual exercises (using a modern version by Kevin O’Brien), and currently, I’m in a “week” (a chunk of time) reflecting on sin. Too, it’s Advent. Christmas is right around the corner, and every time I wrap or buy a gift, I think of the concept of gift. Plus, I’m working on Christmas cards as a part of my morning prayer routine, and reflecting on how the individuals I’m sending cards to have been gift to me.
On the first, sin sucks. It’s divisive. It makes us restless. It has us create barriers between each other, God, and even our true self. It’s root is pride where we think we know better than God. Or, we know we don’t know better, but we’re so scared of letting go of any semblance of control that we don’t let him in.
Gift is humble and the antidote to sin. As I wrote two years ago, I learned about the concept of gift while working with liver transplant patients. For a gift to be true gift, it must be freely given for the benefit of the recipient without expectation of return. We grow up in this horrible Santa Claus mentality where we think we need to earn gifts like love, affection, belonging, salvation, etc. because we “earn” our gifts as children. Yet, as any parent can probably tell us, no child really deserves any Christmas present because those young ones can be crazy. But at some time or another, we have all be the recipient of a tainted gift, and that gift that was used for manipulation of some kind sticks with us.
Even though I conceptually know that gifts must be given for benefit of the recipient, freely, and without expectation of return, I find myself in buying gifts and in sending cards desiring something in return. That return might be as small as an affirming text message with a thank you or as big as repairing a fractured relationship. And I find myself struggling with God giving Himself as a gift to us in the form of a small child.
St. Ignatius’s reflection on sin starts with one of my favorite parables: The Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). I love Henri Nouwen’s take on the story in his life-changing book Return of the Prodigal Son. He speaks of how we are all the prodigal son and the elder son with the goal of becoming like the father and welcoming others home.
Reflecting on this passage I know and love, I was stumped by the phrase “after a few days” in verse 13. There’s nothing special about the phrase in the Greek or anything. The literal translation is “after not many days.” It’s just that the prodigal son voiced to his father that he wants him dead (thus to get the inheritance) and then sticks around for a while! What was that situation like? How did the father react? Did he beg for his son to stay? Did he ignore him? Did he avoid him? What about the servants? His brother? What was that house like for that “few days” where the younger son had created a deep emotional chasm between himself and his father (as well as everyone else) but was still around?
I think it was like our fractured relationships. There’s a lot of silence. We the prodigal son feel uncertain about what the other is thinking or doing. We can imagine they hate us, don’t love us, or don’t even like us. Even Christ can be silent with us in prayer when we are deep in sin, and that silence can be paralyzing. I used to think that silence was bad. Truly, however, silence in prayer is the silence of a father who sees his son packing to leave him and leans on the doorpost in the corner without a sound as a silent reminder that he loves him and does not want the separation that he asked for. At that point, is there anything that can be said that would make him stay? His father gave him everything. Nothing more can be said. The only thing left to be given is His presence.
And that’s where sin and gift have actually been one in the same concept for me this Advent. In amid our sin, Christ gave Himself as gift. He was not packaged as the world expected nor appeared as they imagine, and He even did not come to conquer the world as they wanted. Yet Christ came and gave the greatest gift: His presence.
I think everyone during Advent should hold a newborn. One of my greatest moments of Advent so far has been holding a baby. But he’s not just any baby. He’s a baby I have prayed for and loved before he was even conceived. To me, he is living proof that Our God is a God of miracles.
Two of my closet friends in Milwaukee just had their first child. Since meeting both of them when I was new to town about 3 year ago, I knew they deeply desired a baby but were having fertility issues. That ache drew us together – them for a baby, me for a spouse. We have prayed for one another. Even with the stress of a newborn, they are so holy and selfless that they offer up their sleepless nights for others, even me and my lazy bum (my affectionate nickname for my future husband).
I’ve reflected on how moving it is imagining Jesus as a baby before. Little Sweet Pea is such a blessing in my life. When he was a newborn, he really taught that however broken and imperfect I am, my presence can be a gift. He taught me how to love and be loved in a way I had never known nor fully appreciated before. Looking through old pictures of when he was first born to find the picture for this post warmed my heart and helped me appreciate how much we both have grown in that time.
However, my two nephews Sweet Pea and Baby Pie (who, let’s face it, is not a baby anymore. He’s 2. Therefore, I’m going to refer to him as the Bulldozer from now on because that’s how he goes through life: plowing everything over without fear of getting hurt. He has been known to try to jump off nearly anything. That kid is a bulldozer.) have grown up. They’re decently self-sufficient and over 20 pounds. I forgot how little babies are. How fragile they are. How simple they are.
All newborns need is comfort, food, and sleep. No matter how inadequate I feel, a newborn does not need much from me. All he needs is my presence, to hold him, to feed him, to clean him, to keep him warm, and therefore, to love him.
As adults, I think we forget how great of a gift mere presence is. We come to holiday parties with food or wine because we think just showing up is not enough. We come to our family Christmas with presents because we think just being there is not enough. We go to company holiday parties with some sort of gift to exchange because we think just coming together off the clock is not enough.
But what if we realized our presence is a gift? As Henri Nouwen with his friends Donald P. McNeill and
“But what really counts is that in moment of pain and suffering someone stays with us. More important than any particular action or word of advice is the simple presence of someone who cares. When someone says to us in the midst of a crisis, “I do not know what to say or what to do, but I want you to realize that I am with you, that I will not leave you alone,” we have a friend through whom we can find consolation and comfort…
We have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other. We have lost this gift because we have been led to believe that presence must be useful. We say, “Why should I visit this person? I can’t do anything anyway. I don’t even have anything to say. Of what use can I be?” Meanwhile, we have forgotten that it is often in “useless,” unpretentious, humble presence to each other that we feel consolation and comfort. Simply being with someone is difficult because it asks of us that we share in the other’s vulnerability, enter with him or her into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become part of uncertainty, and give up control and self-determination. And still, whenever this happens, new strength and new hope is being born…
As soon as we call God, “God-with-us,” we enter into a new relationship of intimacy with him. By calling him Immanuel, we recognize that he has committed himself to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, to suffer all of life with us. The God-with-us is a close God, a God whom we call our refuge, our stronghold, our wisdom, and even, more intimately, our helper, our shepherd, our love. We will never really know God as a compassionate God if we do not understand with out heart and mind that “he lived among us” (John 1:14).”
– Henri Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and
Presence – not presents – is the true gift of Christmas. It is the meaning of His name Immanuel: God is with us. Henri et al. wrote it much more eloquently that I ever could, but I love that Jesus Christ came merely to be with us. To be with us, in our pain, in our joy, in our loneliness, in our greatest sense of belonging, in our suffering, in the dull moments of our lives, in the exciting moments of our lives, in the uncertain moments of our lives, in everything.
I think the gift of this past year is that I’ve been learning how presence is the greatest gift. I especially learned it in keeping vigil with my dear friends Maggie and Jim at the bedside of their son Colby that my useless being was a gift. They didn’t need my books, food, gift cards, etc. however nice they were. They needed to know someone was with them.
We do not just need to be present during crisis either. Colby has been stable and home for several months now, thankfully. My friend Cece and I were able to visit Maggie earlier this month. She didn’t need anything from us, and our presence was a gift to her. It was a beautiful day of just being with one another exactly where all of us were: Maggie in her uncertainty with her son, Cece in her uncertainty with her disease, and me in my perpetual uncertainty about my vocation. (Which, really, feels like nothing compared to those crosses. Thank the Good Lord for all the perspective He’s giving me!)
And too, the greatest gift I can give Christ this Advent and Christmas season is my presence. The most frustrating piece of the spiritual exercises has been the colloquy. In Ignatian spirituality, it is an intimate conversation with Christ posing these 3 questions:
- What have I done for Christ?
- What am I doing for Christ?
- What ought I do for Christ?
But I find before Christ, I have no merits past, present, or future that can “earn” His mercy, forgiveness, salvation, or even an ounce of His love. No matter what I do, I know I am a pitiful sinner who needs Him for everything. I distraughtly told my spiritual director this, and she told me instead to just have an intimate conversation with Christ. And I find the best conversation I am able to have with Christ while pondering on sin is to imagine Him as a newborn.
Holding my friend’s newborn, though I know he needs nothing from me aside from my presence, it was difficult to hold aside my own inadequacies. Imagining holding newborn Jesus, my inadequacies are at the forefront of my mind. Yet, despite of all it, Christ wants to be with me. Though I know I will love imperfectly, I will try to love Christ. Though I know I will not hold Him as close to me as I could, I will hold onto Christ. Though I know I will not care for Him as much as I can, I will take care of Christ.
I think the prodigal son eventually came home because he realized his father did not want anything from him. His father just wanted him home. As Henri Nouwen wrote on the subject,
“For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”
– Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son
Our Father will always give us the gift of His presence: freely given, without expectation of return, for our benefit. He is the Father who stands in the corner of our hearts and minds, quietly waiting for us, even as we plan on moving farther and farther away from Him. He is the Father that challenges us to welcome one another, Himself, and even our broken selves home as He welcomes us with open arms.
Though we often define others and ourselves by our failures, it is not the leaving, not the error, not sin that defines. Rather, we are defined by Our Father’s infinite love for us. This Loving Father needs nothing from us but desires everything good for us. All we need to do is come home and remain in His Presence.