Give It Away Now
If you have money, consider that perhaps the only reason God allowed it to fall into your hands was in order that you might find joy and perfection by giving it all away. – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, in Mitch Finley, Season of Promises, p.8
We live in odd times. Contradictory ideas rule our lives. Were we a people given to the smallest bit of self-awareness, we might well realize how these contradictions are tearing apart our national soul. At no time of the whole year round are these contradictions more apparent than during Advent. We prepare for Christmas, our national schizophrenia in full flower. We proclaim our preparation for the coming of the Christ Child, to celebrate the birth of God’s Son. Much of our retail economy relies upon the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas for its survival; that survival keeps afloat our national economy.
Our secularized Calvinist ideas about wealth and money, that working hard, frugality, and saving reward us with riches that are ours and ours alone, a sign of our goodness and success, eat away at our national psyche. Which is why Merton’s little sentence sounds so funny to Protestant ears. Thankfully, Roman Catholic social teaching does not see private wealth as a blessing flowing from the commonwealth to those who are blessed. Rather, private wealth is a private obligation and a social good, to be used for bettering the lives of those in need.
Except for buying things that, by and large, shall be tucked away in boxes to be sold in a yard sale some summer years from now, far too many of us believe that our money is ours. It is a private good, the only tie to any social benefit being what we might or might not prefer to offer on our own. Even those who do not have much at all believe that, should they become wealthy either through luck or some other mechanism, whatever is theirs is just that. The role of society, down to providing a safe legal and social framework within which to accrue wealth, is to this way of thinking, something that need not be considered.
Yet, we are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the long expected Christ-child. We are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Redeemer to claim the world as that which is rightfully his and his alone. Those of us who have any kind of wealth should at least consider the self-emptying of Christ St. Paul wrote about in Philippians. As Charles Wesley wrote, the Son of God left behind riches we cannot imagine to be born to the poorest of the poor, an unwed couple, laid in a feeding trough for cows. This is the long-expected Jesus whose coming we anticipate, we proclaim, and for which we work.
How is it possible to prepare ourselves for this Event when we are so busy showing the world how successful we are, how blessed we are, buying everything from easily broken toys for children who will forget about them before the sun sets on Christmas Day to cheap household goods designed to break down and be replaced before spring flowers have broken through the softening earth? How is it possible to look at all that one has and see not Divine blessing but Divine obligation? We as a nation, we call ourselves Christian, yet we live by a motto best summed up as IGMFY. The poor deserve their lot, rather than as much assistance as we can offer. The stranger in our midst is a threat to our well-being, not a human being in need of compassion, searching only for a home and a life for their family. The homeless, the ill, those in prison – these are the losers of American blessing lottery, and are deserving only of scorn. Isn’t that right?
Except we are in a season in which we prepare for the coming of the One who teaches us these losers are those especially beloved of God, a source of special blessing for the rest of us, even – perhaps – a vehicle for divine revelation. We in our homes filled with light and warmth and boxes of junk in basements and attics and garages and storage facilities, we might well discover the revelation of the Christ-child escapes our ears, too busy as we are celebrating our blessedness. This Advent, as we prepare for the birth of Jesus, perhaps we should consider all that we have as not at all our own, but as God’s, to be offered to the world just as God offered the Divine Life, beginning with the birth of a crying, mewling baby. Perhaps we should listen to Thomas Merton, and consider how blessed we are to give away so much to so many.