What hath Christ to do with Versace?
I remember a Christmas morning interview with Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, on The Today Show. Asked how he felt living on 5th Avenue, in the heart of a world-renowned shopping district, the superficial of the superficial, the glamorous of the glam, the belly of the beast (some might contend), he replied with characteristic cheer: “I always think, at least most of them are all shopping for someone else.”
Let the reader take note. This is no neighborhood for small-hearted grinches to lurk and leer with closed pocketbooks. It’s the locus of a consumer frenzy, a place of persons with exorbitant reserves, each shopping soldier armed and ready with a Visa Platinum, ready to swipe, sign, and spend with the swiftest of swiftness. Yet, the bishop says, even within such as these, a basic religious impulse has not been snuffed out: our need to show our love by giving.
Gifts—they’re a good thing.
Of course, there are all sorts of qualifications we could make: How much is too much? Should we only give to our kith and kin? How about the poor? When does shopping get in the way of our religious mindset? Might we consider expressions of the other Five Love Languages to balance out gift-giving? Etc.
All I mean here is to point out something holy in the midst of something secular—our focus on other people when we shop for them.
When we shop for someone, we’re thinking of two things: what particular thing would be particularly good for them, and how might they react when they unwrap it?
God, in fact, considers the same criteria when giving us gifts.
A brief story to illustrate.
Years back, I was home in Ohio for Christmas, and I was asked to join the choir for the evening vigil Mass. On the docket was listed a certain prelude tune, the words of which I was already, unpleasantly familiar with: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Wishing offense to nobody, I tend to place these sorts of songs on my mental music shelf alongside Amy Grant’s “Grown-Up Christmas List.” Then the moment came, and a 7-year-old girl stepped forward to sing it solo. That changed everything. For the first time ever, the song worked. Her mom sat in the front pew, giving a pure “mom” look that can’t be described. It had a lot of God in it: the intent and particular love for that one child (though she had others), and watching her little girl begin to respond, singing to God and the whole church and the world that, indeed, peace could begin, starting with her little life. I’ve never made fun of that song since, and I’ve never forgotten that mom’s look.
God looks at us that way. He has a particular love for each of us. And he awaits our particular response.
Parents and God both share that perspective. They both cooperate in giving life to children. They then give many gifts throughout their children’s lives, to show, many times over, one simple fact: “It’s because I love you.” And they both know the best-kept secret of gift-giving, that the greatest present is presence. Being together. That’s how life begins at the start, and how we hope it will end, in such simplicity, together forever.
As we approach Christmas, tackle your shopping list heroically. Show the people you love that you love them. Show that especially to your parents, because in giving you life they gave you a gift you can never repay.
But recall that we each stand in debt to a greater gift, one already received, one that demands a response. The gift’s name is Christ. He is new life for the soul, lost without him in this life. And the required response is a lifetime’s effort of turning to him, of giving over to him our attention, our time, our words, ourselves, a thousand times or more.
We are the gift he wants. We are the only thing on his Christmas list. But only we can give ourselves.
Image: The New York Times, Christmas Shopping, 1910 (detail)