December 23, 2018 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
This homily was originally delivered at St. Pius X Parish, Indianapolis, IN in December 2015.
With the Christmas season approaching, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the practice of exchanging gifts. I will focus primarily on the receiving of gifts, more specifically, how one responds to receiving a gift.
Allow me to offer three examples from the wide range of possible responses.
Example #1: After school one day, five students and I spent three hours in the rain, raking leaves for my elderly neighbor. We filled up 64 large trash bags with the leaves from her front yard. Darkness set in, and as we were putting away the rakes and leaf blower, my neighbor stepped out onto her front porch and called me over.
What was her response to this gift we had given her? Her response was, and I quote: “Aren’t you going to rake the back yard?”
Our gift was not enough. She wasn’t satisfied; she wanted more.
Example #2: There is a 7-second video on YouTube that is very popular right now. The premise is that a little boy gives the very same response for every single gift he receives. So for fun, his parents wrapped up an avocado and added it to his pile of Christmas gifts.
The boy opened gift after gift. When it came time to open this “fake” gift, the polite young boy tore off the paper, smiled and said, “An avocado! Thanks!” He then dropped the avocado and grabbed the next present.
What that response offered in politeness, it lacked in sincerity. He may or may not have liked the gift. He may or may not have been grateful to the person who gave it to him. He simply went through the motions. He was a creature of habit when it came to opening gifts.
Example #3: In 1997, there was a movie starring Jim Carrey called Liar Liar. It was the story of an absentee father trying his best to re-connect with his son. He gave a gift to his son on his birthday – a ball, mitt, and baseball cap. When the boy opened it, his eyes lit up and he said enthusiastically, “Baseball stuff!” He then thanked his dad profusely. Once he got over the excitement of receiving this awesome gift, he asked his dad to go outside and play catch with him.
The gift was something the boy really wanted. His excitement and gratitude were genuine. He didn’t even need to say, “Thank you” to his dad – his reaction said it all. To top it off, the first thing he wanted to do with his gift was share it with someone else.
Today’s readings address how we respond to God’s gifts. When He presents us with a gift, what do we offer in return? What are His expectations of us?
In the second reading, it is clear what God does not want in return. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we heard: “Sacrifices and offerings (are) neither desired nor delighted in.”
For thousands of years, sacrifice of animals and burnt offerings were the go-to gift for God. Yet we hear today that those things were of no use to Him.
God gives us gifts each day: The gift of life…of another day. The beauty found in nature. People in our lives who love us. The reassuring hug of a friend. The warmth that comes from serving others. The peace that comes from knowing God as a friend and companion.
These gifts, and many more, are poured out for us daily, if we are open to receiving them.
How do we respond to the gifts God has given us?
Do we respond like my neighbor? Do we miss out on the gift right in front of us because we are already anticipating the next gift? Are we never satisfied?
When God presents us with a gift, is our response, “This isn’t what I wanted!”?
Or maybe we are just going through the motions, like the Avocado Kid. Do we give lip service by offering a word of thanks, and then throw God’s gift on the pile with the rest? Do we take His gifts for granted?
I know God will be here tomorrow, offering me gifts again; maybe I’ll thank him then.
God does not want empty gestures or well-rehearsed responses any more than He wants burnt offerings. He wants genuine gratitude. When He gives us a gift, He wants us to accept it with the same love with which it was given; He wants us to value His gifts.
God does not need us to yell out “God stuff!” with enthusiasm each time we receive a gift from Him. However, He does want us to carry that type of excitement in our hearts.
Our gift to God is our response to His gifts. To honor Him and show our sincere gratitude, we must first recognize God’s gifts. Then, we must be open to receiving the gifts, accepting them lovingly. We must embrace the uniqueness of each gift; after all, God’s gifts are personal. Finally, we must share the gifts with the world.
That is exactly how Mary, the Mother of God, received the gift given to her. She is the ultimate example of one who understood how precious it was to receive a gift from God, and responded accordingly.
Can you even imagine what Mary must have been thinking, how she must have felt, when the angel appeared to her, and revealed the gift she was receiving from God? A 13 or 14-year-old girl, being told that she had been chosen to carry and give birth to the Christ child?
She could have rejected this gift. She could have given the angel any number of valid excuses: “It’s too overwhelming. I’m not prepared. I’m too young. Choose someone else.”
But she did not. Instead, Mary honored God by showing sincere gratitude.
She recognized that being chosen for this responsibility was a gift. She was open to the gift and accepted it lovingly, which took incredible faith. She believed what she was told and embraced the unique gift. “Blessed are you who believed what was spoken to you,” Elizabeth told her.
Finally, she shared this gift with the world. Knowing the heartache it would ultimately bring her, she still shared this gift by sending Jesus out into the world to do His work.
I came across this passage from 1 Peter recently: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s grace.”
That is how God wants us to respond.
That is God stuff.