’Tis the season ... for Black Friday, for Cyber Tuesday, for endless circulars in the mail, for juggling competing holiday parties, for longer lines at the post office, for trying to find a parking space at the mall, for deciding how much money to spend on presents, for deciding how much credit card debt to take on, and for TV commercials pushing diamonds, cruises and shavers with floating heads.
Many feel the Christmas season to be a kind of quest, in most cases, a quest for the perfect gift for someone we love. Of course, at the same time, that special someone is searching for the perfect gift for us. Christmas can easily end up being a time of trading gift for gift rather than a time of true giving.
So what is “true giving?” The answer to that will not be found in any TV commercial or catalog that we receive in the mail. “True giving” is not something that the marketplace understands, even though the marketplace pretends that it does. Rather, we will need to listen to the religions of the world to discover the secret of this season.
Christianity, of course, is the religion that celebrates Christmas as a holy season. But Christianity is not the only religion to offer guidance on the art of giving.
Judaism has developed what might be considered a ladder of compassion or charity. On the lowest rung is giving with a grudging heart. The next rung up is giving cheerfully, but even that is quite low down. The highest form of charity or compassion, on the top and eighth rung of the ladder, is helping a person before they are in need.
Islam also has a profound understanding of giving. God’s angels are thought to be unable to descend to a community as long as one hungry person remains in that town. And feeding a hungry widow is considered more important than praying all night.
Christianity, of course, offers clear guidance on how to celebrate this holy season. Jesus warns about limiting our compassion to those who are in our circles of family and friends. Instead, Christians are encouraged to imitate the magi who come to offer gifts to the Christ child. And nowhere does Jesus make it clearer as to how we can give this gift than when Jesus explains that he can be found in those in our midst who are hungry, thirsty, without sufficient clothing, or confined in some way.
What these three great religions of the West have in common isn’t hard to see. If we want to “get the most” this Christmas season, we need to give to those in such need that they cannot give us a gift in return.
But perhaps the truth is even greater than that. Perhaps those we know or pass by who are in such need that they cannot give anything back are, in fact, the great gift to us. For are they not those whom God has put in our path, the very ones who have the keys to open our hearts?
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World.”