This is the season in which we give gifts to our family and friends! We love to show our generosity and express kindness to others. In our culture, giving gifts is something we do all the time. Recently, following the renovation of our home, some friends wanted to come over. They were Palestinian and they told us that they would only come to visit on condition that they could bring us housewarming gifts. The desire and obligation to give is part of our culture. I remember my father’s notebook, in which he recorded the amounts that close and extended family members gave to us, so that he would be able to reciprocate in kind. In our culture, it is shameful to give anything less than what you have received. My father believed it was important to give others the same amount or even more than they had given him. Sadly, too often in our culture, giving comes with "strings attached" and is connected to material things.
Recently, as I was reading the book of Philippians, I found myself reflecting on how Paul emphasizes friendship, community and joy throughout his letter. This joy is not based upon fulfilling selfish desires or pleasure but rather on overcoming evil and obstacles. When we actively give of ourselves we partake in the work of God.
It is very interesting to see how friendship within the Roman Empire was based upon socio-economic status. Giving was related to class and the building of self-esteem rather than to generosity of heart. Because giving and gifts have the potential to distort relationships and friendships, Paul never thanked the Philippians for their gifts. He refrained from thanking them so that there would be no need for reciprocity. He also wanted to do away with the sense that the givers are somehow superior to the recipients. There was no room for anything but a simple expression of joy.
As we enter the Christmas season, though we enjoy the atmosphere and festivities, we cannot help but see how commercialized our religious observances have become. This is evident across cultures.
People emphasize the importance and significance of gifts and the material aspects of the holiday, forgetting that we can also give of ourselves, as a gift to others. This is something that God did for us in the Messiah. Sometimes we hesitate to give of ourselves because we fear that we may lose control, or we are concerned about exercising humility, or harming our socio-economic status. It is a risk to give of ourselves without expecting something in return.
In this season, as we spend time with family and friends, we need to be challenged to give more than just materially. This is a lesson we learn from God giving himself to us with the birth of the Messiah. This is a season to be joyful in our endeavor to overcome darkness, evil, selfish desires, and giving with the wrong intent or with selfish motives. It is the season for giving imbued with the greater purpose that God has for the world.
And so, we invite you to join us by giving to our work and our ministry as we labor together to overcome the evils of racism, hatred, and enmity and join in the work of God by promoting and facilitating reconciliation. Through our work, we can bring the light of joy to pierce the darkness that surrounds our societies and be a beacon of hope and peace.
We wish you a blessed Christmas.
Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D.