Question: What do you give to the one who has everything, needs nothing, and always gives more than he gets?
Answer: That One can only be God. For everyone else, we should give whatever helps lead a person to God.
It may be that Christmas is being corrupted with consumerism, but I think that it is only right that the season be characterized by gift-giving. When we consider how God gives Himself to the world, we are first confronted with the natural gift of creation, the world and all it holds. After this we find the gifts of grace, such as the prophetic knowledge of Isaiah or the charismatic powers of Elijah. In an act of complete, unpredictable generosity, God gives us not only natural and supernatural created gifts: He gives us Himself. To paraphrase the martyr-poet St. Robert Southwell, “Gift greater than Himself, God cannot give; gift greater than God, man cannot conceive.”
God’s gift of Himself to us calls for a response. His extended hand of friendship, His offer of the substantial love, the Person of the Holy Spirit, calls out for us to give ourselves wholly to Him. But how can we give to Him who owns the world and all it holds? He wants us to give ourselves to Him in new and deeper way by His grace, and then to give ourselves to our neighbors with His love. How can we say that we love the God we cannot see if we do not love our brothers whom we can see? (1 John 4:20). God wants us to give ourselves to Him directly, through worship and heartfelt love, and indirectly by giving ourselves to our brothers and sisters. Thus, the greatest self-gift that priests give is when they give the sacraments to us in a worthy and holy manner, because this is the work for which they were ordained, and it joins us with God Himself.
What Gift Can We Give To Our Priest?
What can we give a priest in our life? Some might appreciate bourbon, or a nice dinner with friends, or more free time (but who can give that?). With some priests we might want to be friends with them, but such relationships are not always possible in this life. As I say in my book, Alter Christus: Priestly Holiness on Earth and in Eternity:
Friendship is a great good for human beings — indeed, according to Aquinas, it is one of the most necessary goods, given our social nature. Christ elevated friendship to a divine status by telling His disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). … Everyone needs friends, and for a celibate priest, holy friendships are among the greatest earthly gifts that God grants in this life.
Of course, our first and best friend ought to be God. In the Byzantine liturgy, Christ is invoked with the intimate title “O Friend of men.” Friendships should also extend to those around us. In Alter Christus, I explain:
St. John Henry Newman observed that even Christ, remarkably, had certain personal friendships of great closeness. It might have been thought that God would have no friends but Himself, as others were unworthy of Him; or that He would have loved all equally. But this was not the case.
Christ had twelve close disciples, and among them three were particularly dear, and one was his “beloved” friend. (See Newman’s sermon, “Love of Relations and Friends”) I continue:
Newman goes on to say that personal friendships ought to be preparatory exercises for loving all men more generally; that the friendships should be intelligent and discriminating and not guided by mere instinct or emotional sympathy; that they should flow from a virtuous heart and thereby help virtue grow and deepen.
However, not all friendships are possible in this life.
St. John Henry Newman knew both the great value of friends, and also the heart-rending loss of having to leave some behind. His call to be a Catholic entailed a call away from his Anglican friends. Saying farewell to those whom he had loved for so long, and who loved him in return, recalled to him the parting of St. Paul from his friends in Caesarea: they begged the apostle not to leave to Jerusalem, where danger awaited. In response, he said: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). Thus, the last sermon Newman preached as an Anglican, was entitled, “The Parting of Friends,” and re-told the stories in Sacred Scripture of friends who, for one reason or another, had to part on earth, but in doing so retained the hope of reunion in heaven. Later, in a letter to John Keble, who had been one his dearest companions, Newman promised that he would always be to Keble “a faithful assiduous friend unseen” (Letter to Keble, November 14, 1845).
Thus, when we think about the priests in our lives, and what would be the best, the most useful, the most lasting gift we can give to them, the answer is: whatever helps the priest to receive God as a gift, and whatever helps the priest give himself more fully to God. All of us, but especially every priest, should be able to say with St. Robert Southwell:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me.
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.
If we can make those words our own, then we shall one day enjoy the Divine Gift together in heaven—and we shall be able to say:
He mine by gift, I His by debt,
Thus each to other due,
First friend He was, best friend He is,
All times will try Him true.
The gift of friendship with Christ is the source of our saintly friendships with others: that is the greatest gift that can be given at Christmas, when God gives His Son to us in the form of a loveable child.