In this time of Holy Week as we enter the Triduum (The Holy Thursday/Good Friday/Easter Vigil Liturgy), our focus as Christians is the on suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are reminded of the injustice done to Jesus, the spotless lamb, who was sacrificed for our sake. We are moved by the way He took our burdens away from us, removing the stain of sin. We transition from the deepest sorrow to the most exultant joy in a matter of days. All of this because of the gift that was given to us, Jesus’ passion.
I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that “gift” is a difficult concept to understand for many of us because I doubt many of us actually know how to give or receive a gift in the purest sense. That’s not to say that most people aren’t generous: we give and receive gifts for birthdays, going out of our way to do something nice on that special day, and for Christmas, most of us “exchange gifts” with people we love. This is a wonderful practice of building relationships.
At the same time, however, I have to wonder why “exchange gifts” is not seen for what it is, an oxymoron. The very essence of gift is that it is freely given love from one to another without any expectation of return. To “exchange” gifts or to have any expectation of a mutual return is not giving a gift, it is an economy of friendship; it is a transaction, albeit well-intentioned and often fruitful.
With birthdays and Christmas, special holidays and end-of-the-year celebrations, there is, like it or not, an expectation placed on each of us to engage in this exchange to some extent. And while it’s not necessarily bad because it shows people affection and is a great way to build relationships, I wonder if that can even be considered “gift” at all. If it is owed to them, that sounds more like justice than it does gift.
Jesus speaks to this in the Gospel of Luke:
When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Lk 14:12-14)
There is a sense here that a true gift is something given freely without any strings attached. It is an end in itself. The giver gives simply out of love and the receiver is not compelled to do anything but receive graciously. Is this the case when we give gifts? For me, I often receive a wonderful present and wonder, “How am I going to match this on so-and-so’s birthday?” Worse yet, I have been disappointed at the present someone has given me because I put so much more money and effort into their present than they did into mine. Such an attitude, I believe, completely undermines the whole purpose of gift in the first place.
Such is the case, returning to the Triduum, of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It is gift in the truest sense, freely given love that requires absolutely nothing in return. I think that our often-distorted view of gift exchange detracts from the beauty of his sacrifice. When we enter this Holy Liturgy, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with guilt because it is our sins that made Jesus do this and feel compelled to help Jesus carry the cross to take away His pain; we despair in the fact that we are unworthy to receive such a sacrifice or how incapable we are of returning it; sometimes, we futilely attempt to “make up” for our sins anyway. Our first response is to return the favor that Jesus has done for us in his sacrifice, but this is absurd. He did not do it because we deserved it or because He was looking for something in return. He did not do it only for those that would be thankful. Jesus’ sacrifice is a gift. It is freely given, unmerited favor, and it requires nothing from us in return because that is the very essence of gift.
And so, this evening as we enter into this most holy Triduum, all that is ours to do is to be thankful. Jesus is offering us a gift of great love. Graciously accept it knowing that there is nothing that we could possibly do to return the favor, and that we’re not expected to even try. What a joyous occasion it is! May you have a blessed Easter knowing this!