Print Version    Email to Friend
… of gifts and strangers

In the week before Christmas I always delay buying presents. I find it a difficult time because I am not gifted with the imagination needed to buy truly personal, simple and endearing presents.
If I had my way, I would buy everyone a gift voucher, but I appreciate that is hardly the spirit of gift-giving. 
Then there is always someone for whom it is difficult to buy, because they don’t seem to need anything.
The experience reminds me of a book I read many years ago by an English missionary anthropologist, Anthony Gittins, Gifts and Strangers.
The book analyses missionary life from the point of view of gift giving and receiving, a necessary part of building relationships. Gittins builds on the theories of Marcel Mauss’ seminal book, The Gift.
Mauss points out that gifts are rarely free. They always indebt us. But that is not so terrible because these debts establish relationships. The alternative is the rich, independent man who needs nothing and owes no one anything, but is ultimately isolated and lonely.
Gittins points out that we all have the obligation to give, to receive and to repay. I have no problem with giving. As a missionary I am a professional giver although I am not so sure I allow people the freedom to accept or refuse my gifts and I now wonder how that makes them feel.
However, it is the obligation to receive that concerns me most. I went to South Korea when it was a much poorer country than it is now. I was young and generous, and while I loved being with the people, I am not sure I felt that I needed anything from them.
However, I slowly learned that a missionary is irrelevant to the real lives of people if they need nothing and live lives apart, always giving and never receiving.
Not to receive is an unwillingness to be in relationship. When we seem not to need others’ gifts and services we can make them feel helpless and insignificant. It is like the experience we have with rich friends for whom we cannot buy a present. I find that is always an alienating feeling.
Ultimately, it is a question of power. Not only can people oppress others with large presents, they can also insult them by the way they receive gifts.
To receive graciously is to give power to others. It is to hand the initiative over to them, to allow ourselves to be indebted, to empower and liberate the giver and to open ourselves to mutual relationships.
This is not only important for missionaries, but for all of us and it is also critically important in our relationship with God. We can either, give and accept gifts graciously, or we condemn ourselves to being strangers. That would go against the spirit of Christmas.
A blessed gift-giving and receiving celebration to all!
• Father Noel Connolly