In Celebration of the Gift: An Advent Meditation by Rev. Dr. Nelson Rivera

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During the time of Advent, Esperanza has invited clergy members to contribute guest columns reflecting on the meaning of the season and values we learn through the fulfillment of the birth of Christ. This is the first in our series.

We often hear that the Advent/Christmas cycle is a time for giving. Giving, and exchanging gifts, are at the heart of the season. We all participate in it, to a greater or lesser extent. But, have we ever considered the meaning of giving, the nature of a gift?

Our understanding of giving begins with the Christian view of God as a gracious giver. God gives abundantly to people. Many are the gifts of God, faith itself being one of them. But, what is a gift? A dictionary definition speaks of “a thing given.” The nature of a gift is to be given, and thus, to be received, not by necessity or demand but through the gracious act of another.

We learn from St. Paul that faith is such a gift, a free act of God for us. We may ask, then, what kind of a gift is faith?  Could faith be like one of those presents that one gets on Christmas, or on Mother’s or Father’s Day, and for which we have no use or desire? Is it like one of those objects that is, at the first opportunity, passed along to someone else?

What kind of a gift is faith then? We say that faith is a very valuable gift. Yet, there is a kind of gift that seems so valuable, that it could make us feel hesitant of even touching it, using it, ever afraid of breaking it. Could the gift of faith be like that?

There is something about faith, especially about the nature of God’s gift that feels truly overwhelming at times. This is the meaning of the “undeserving nature” of God’s grace—something for which we can never be prepared nor assume; that which could be neither demanded nor bought.

We often say that a gift is something that we just give or receive—and this is true. However, sometimes I think that it may be better to say that it is something that we find or that finds us, taking us by surprise. Faith is the kind of gift that we cannot afford or secure by ourselves. It is truly unmerited; the gift that keeps giving.

Whatever else we could say of the gift of faith, I’d like to suggest that faith can be put to good use. Faith is what enables us to trust God. It also enables us to relate charitably to others. This faith has the capacity to affect us, to move us in unique ways. Moreover, this gift is not only for us to enjoy, but something to share with others. This is how we become grateful givers. It is faith itself that does the job in us. Those who have freely received are enabled now to give freely to others as well.

Such is the nature of God’s gift.

The Rev. Nelson Rivera, PhD
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
Director of the Latino Concentration
The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia