Has buying a gift for someone you love ever stressed you out? If so, you’re not alone. It’s called “gift anxiety.” We know our gifts say something about us; we know our gifts say something about how we feel for other person. We want the gift to be perfect. And that makes us feel anxious.
All of us want to be good gift-givers. That’s why it bears being reminded that the greatest gift we can ever give is not something that comes in a box or can be purchased with a credit card. Instead, the greatest gift you and I can give is the gift of ourselves.
A young man I know once approached the father of his girlfriend, seeking permission to propose to his daughter. It was December, and he said, “I want to give her the gift of myself for Christmas.” That was a beautiful thing to say, because there’s nothing more precious than the gift of a human being.
Think of it this way: Each one of us has been individually created in the image and likeness of God. Each one of us is absolutely unique. You and I are like snowflakes; no two of us are exactly the same. This means that every one of us reflects to the world something about God that no one else can. In a sense, you might say that if any one of us had never been born, God’s reflection in the world would somehow be incomplete.
That’s how special we are. Therefore, to give of ourselves as a gift, is a rare and wonderful thing indeed. We are unique and irreplaceable. The gift of ourself is a gift that no one else can give, or ever will be able to give.
What’s more, we are gifts that were made to be shared. To begin with, we’re meant to be shared with our fellow human beings. No human relationship will ever be deep or intimate unless both people involved make a sincere and open gift of themselves to each other.
You and I are also gifts that are meant to be shared with God. God wants to receive us as a gift. He wants us to offer ourselves to him in love and obedience; he wants us to surrender ourselves to him; he wants us to open our hearts and let him in.
But there’s a measure of “gift anxiety” in all this, isn’t there? We know who we are, and we fear that our gift may not be good enough. We worry that perhaps our gift will be refused, or be returned, or left to gather dust in a closet. We are all too aware that what we have to offer is far from perfect. There’s weakness, anger, fear, brokenness, and ignorance in all of us. We’re like mirrors. We still reflect God, because we’re made in his image. But the reflection is marred, because we have streaks and cracks. Maybe we’ve been shattered into pieces.
But that’s okay. This side of heaven, we’ll never give a perfect gift of ourselves. We can’t expect perfection from others, either. It isn’t fair; it isn’t realistic. Thankfully, God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He knows what we’re like; he knows us better than we know ourselves. Yet he wants us to give ourselves to him as a gift, nevertheless, because he loves us.
Because only God is perfect, only God is able to make the perfect gift of himself. And that’s exactly what he does. Recall Jesus’ words from today’s gospel. He gives us his flesh to eat; he gives us his blood to drink. In other words, he gives us his whole self. He gives us his humanity, because Jesus is a whole and complete human being. And he gives us his divinity, because from all eternity he is the Son of God.
Jesus, the “living bread come down from heaven,” gives us all of this- the complete and perfect gift of himself- in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The perfect One gives himself to us, who are so imperfect, so that we can become a bit more like him, and so that we’ll know that we are truly and deeply loved.
Jesus knows that we’re far from perfect. At the same time, he knows that we can do better, that we can grow. By giving us himself in the Eucharist, he gives us what we need to be less imperfect; he gives us the grace we need to be healed, to forgive, to be patient, to understand, to love others in the same way he loves us. It’s sometimes said that “You are what you eat.” But by receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, it’s more as if we become what we eat.
Jesus also gives himself to us so we’ll know that we are loved, and loved perfectly. God does send certain people into our lives to love us, but their love for us always comes up somewhat short. They’re imperfect, like we are. So we still hunger for that perfect love. Maybe we’ll try to distract ourselves from our hunger with work, endless activity, a bottle, hours wasted on the Internet. Perhaps we move from one relationship to the other, looking to be satisfied. But we’re still left hungry. That’s just the way God made us. The only thing- the only person- that can satisfy our hunger for perfect love, is God. And so God feeds us, with himself, in the Eucharist- the banquet of his Body and Blood.
In confession, I was once given a penance that I’ve found tremendously helpful, and which I have continued for seven years. I pass it on to you with the invitation for you to adopt it for yourselves. Every time you pass before a tabernacle, in which the Eucharist- Jesus’ gift of himself- is reserved in a church, and every time you receive Holy Communion, say this prayer: “Lord, only you can satisfy my deepest longing for love.”