About to cross the street, the woman standing next to me held a cup of Starbucks. I pondered the small pleasure of buying a cup of coffee—and wondered where that pleasure is rooted in the human soul. Not the pleasure of drinking the coffee, the pleasure of buying it.
A few days before, I had felt the urge to buy something. I don’t mean something in particular. I just got the urge to go out and buy something.
What is the pleasure we get from exchanging money for something? Is it the satisfaction of giving and receiving? After all, the joy of giving and receiving is the ultimate human connection.
There is also a kind of renewal in purchasing, when we give money to the clerk and she gives us something new in return. It becomes ours, it becomes part of us, and we are enlarged, refreshed, and feel more whole through the brief exchange.
The Magi brought their gifts to honor a King and a God. What kind of exchange did they expect in return? Worshiping a god-king was not unknown in the Middle East, going back as far as 2300 BC, 500 years before Abraham, when some kings were considered divine. We can see now that these beliefs were precursors to the Divine King of Kings, Jesus.
The saints assure us that the wise men did recognize Jesus as God, which is why they offered him frankincense, used in divine worship. St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 400-c. 450) writes, “Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain, now enclosed in a tiny body.”
How to scratch the itch of buying, in a holy way
As I crossed the street, I wondered if I could replace this urge to buy with giving more little gifts and experiencing the root of human connection—giving and receiving—that buying only mimics.
Not buying gifts, but instead, leaving an appreciative Post-it note on a co-worker’s desk or sending an encouraging email. Baking a batch of cookies or making a homemade card. Or just offering a kind word from the heart.
Little things that don’t cost much can be a deeper way than buying gifts to renew ourselves and others. Everyday acts of kind recognition add something to life that the world takes away, as common reverence and respect erode more every year.
We need constant renewal
The ultimate renewal comes from the one whom the Magi traveled so far to honor. Jesus Christ gives us his very self—body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Eucharist. He gives us his Holy Spirit, and we feel more complete. We need to go and give likewise.
And don’t forget yourself!
I know a woman who has a note on her bathroom mirror that says, “Good morning, gorgeous!” It doesn’t cost a dime to remind ourselves of how “gorgeous” we are in God’s eyes.
The hearts of the Magi were animated by Jesus’ heart. That is why they came to offer precious gifts. Today we can choose to be like Jesus, giving what really matters—gifts that renew, build-up, and replenish an authentic human connection that we sometimes allow the world to take away.
This is the oh so perfect gift I needed. You captured the struggle I feel with Christmas giving and the urge to shop which never satisfies like looking for and giving to the Christ in others.
“Giving to the Christ in others” — what a wonderful way to say it!
Of the 200 or so references to “stranger, alien, foreigner” in scripture, most refer in some way to welcoming or friendly exchange. The word “kindness” applies, that is treating a stranger as if he/she were of our kind, our tribe, our relative. Whereas a Neanderthal may have killed a stranger out of hand, scripture treats the encounter as potentially mutually profitable. Rabbi Hillel put it this way: “Do not do to others what is hateful to yourself. That is the whole of the Torah. All else is commentary.”
Scripture holds open the common understanding that transactions, even between strangers, may be mutually profitable. Buying something without the expectation you will be cheated is one instance of the social glue that binds us. We welcome the stranger who may bring flint or some other material we don’t have locally or a new idea we don’t have locally, the plow or wheel for example. Scripture brings an assumption of goodness and good will that fuels the growth of our culture. Surely this must be the free gift of grace.
Free gift of grace, indeed, and our “yes” to that gift!
Anthea Theresa Piscarik
So true, Rose. I had a book signing at Barnes & Noble the weekend before Christmas. I brought and left behind homemade cookies for the staff who worked tirelessly to please customers. Well, I stopped in last Friday and was immediately remembered and thanked profusely by a staff member. They were so grateful for the gesture!
Hope the book signing went great, Anthea!