The implications of the Christmas season continue throughout the liturgical year. One essential point made beautifully clear in the liturgical readings of Christmas is that God’s incarnation is no reward to humanity for its good behavior, but is instead a gift.
Perhaps nowhere was this foreshadowed better than in the story of Abraham and Sarah, found in the Book of Genesis. For the Christian, every Old Testament event is in some way a prefiguration of Christ. Abraham begins to lament that God seems delayed in fulfilling His promise that he and Sarah will conceive a child. They are advanced in years and it seems impossible that they will finally have a child of their own.
Despite their worry, God assures Abraham “I will make your reward great.” In Hebrew the word translated as “reward,” sakar, means wage or gift. In a situation of hopelessness Abraham and Sarah continue in hope. Their trust in God, sometimes shaky, does not cause the fulfillment of His promise, as if to bring something about by performing the service of fidelity. What Abraham does not initially realize is that God means “gift,” not payment, and it will be enfleshed in Isaac, a name which means “laugh,” as if to say God had the last laugh.
A few thousand years after Abraham, another arrival was expected. It had seemed by then that God had forgotten the promises He made through the prophets that He would come to save His people. The problem was that the faithful, like Abraham, were seeking a reward for their continued fidelity. Their expectations led to hope for a political messiah who would reunite Israel and vanquish its enemies.
This was not at all God’s plan and as a result many missed the gift God sent when it came. Often life’s disappointments can be reduced to a difference between expectations for a reward and the reception of a gift. A reward is generally something we expect, like a payment for a job done. A gift is something we do not expect and it is given at the pure pleasure of the giver.
Perhaps this is why Pope Francis recently urged us not to be afraid of the God of surprises. When Paul was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus and given a vision of the Lord, it was certainly no reward for his good behavior. He had by then been killing Christian disciples. What he received was a gift that continues to bear fruit to this day.
In the Mass, the bread and wine to be sacrificed are often called “the gifts.” The Body and Blood of THE Gift is certainly no reward for anything we have done. Instead it, like all of God’s promises when fulfilled, are gifts that continue to give. Perpetuating the Lord’s memory in sacrifice enables us to celebrate Christmas every Sunday, indeed every day of the year. That’s a gift that never needs to be exchanged.
FATHER BRYAN BABICK is the vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments for the Diocese of Charleston. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.