God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that whoever believed in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. This is John 3:16, the verse you are most likely to see on a sign in the stands at a football game or other public event. It speaks to the radical nature of the gift God has given us. His gift is also referenced by St. Paul in the second reading. Our salvation through faith is not from us, it is the gift of God. Even the pagan king Cyrus is aware that what he rules he was given by God.
The gift of salvation from Jesus Christ is an unconditional gift. He gives himself – his love – freely to us without demanding anything in return. This is something we do not see much in our world. It is not something we experience frequently.
We are much more familiar with gifts that come with strings attached. Sometimes the gifts are really not gifts at all because we never let go. Sometimes the gifts are really not gifts because they were given with the expectation of something in return.
I cannot really give this songsheet to Monsignor if I keep holding tightly to the corner of the paper. If I really give my kid my old truck, I cannot keep asking how my truck is doing. It is only a gift if the giver lets go of it. God gives us himself – his love – and he lets go of it so we can have it.
What we call exchanging gifts is often better described as trading. We do this all the time in the business world. When I pick up the tab for lunch, do I do that expecting to hear my dinner partner say something like, “I’ll get the next one?” When Jesus gave us the gift of salvation by dying on the Cross, he gave us something for which we just cannot say, “I’ll get the next one.” There is no reciprocal gift that keeps the score even, the way there is in picking up the tab for lunch.
When we do our gifting, we do it with a fairly small circle of people on whom we can depend to return the gift. Jesus, on the other hand, gave the gift of salvation to everyone, not just Mary and his disciples, but also the Jews and the Romans and the two thieves who were crucified with him. He did not expect anything in return.
The completeness of the gift of God is somewhat frightening to us. It even repels us. Many times, when we are offered a real gift, we don’t want it, which is what St. John means when he says that people preferred the darkness to the light. We see that in the two thieves crucified with Jesus: one continued to mock Jesus because he would not accept the gift of everlasting life.
Our religion is grounded in this free gift. It is different from all the pagan religions, where they would buy off the wrath of a mean god or placate a weather god through offerings and sacrifices of produce and animals. But God’s gift is completely free. It comes with no strings attached. We can accept it or not.
And this brings us to the second distinctive characteristic of a true gift. The giver leaves the receiver to choose what to do about the gift. He gives up ownership, and he gives up outcome. We are so reluctant to make a gift and let the chips fall where they may. In this, we prefer the darkness of conditional giving to the light of true giving.
God’s gift is also his call. He makes no demands, but he makes an invitation to a relationship by giving himself totally to us. And he invites us to respond. That is what we mean by a vocation. He allows us to turn to him in response – as the good thief did. He also allows us to turn away from him – as the bad thief did. We are offered light or darkness, and we get to choose.
The invitation from God is a call. God calls us to holiness – to living a life of grateful acceptance of the gift of salvation. When we mess up – as we surely will – he offers us the gift of spiritual healing in the sacrament of confession and reconciliation. But at no point does God trade his love for something in return. It is gift – always gift. It is a call, a call to holiness, a call to relationship.
Our vocation – our call – is a call to serve god. That’s what holiness is. We can serve him in many ways. Our serving God should be something people notice, though we should not do it in order to be noticed. It is for most of us a private thing, which is why we talk about a personal relationship with Jesus. We accepted the invitation, we accepted the gift, and we spend the rest of our lives saying “thank you” to the giver.
Some people, like Monsignor Frank, respond with a gift of self as priest or religious. Priests give up the good of a family life to be husband and father to the whole Church community. The priest leads us in our sacrifice, which is not like the pagan sacrifice of animals in atonement or appeasement, but is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the God who gave himself completely to us.
Married people respond with a gift of self that is focused on a particular family in the vocation of Holy Matrimony. In the spirit of dying to self, the husband and wife build up the family, which is the fundamental cell of society. Mom and Dad – by how they live their lives – teach their children and teach the world what love looks like.
Our vocation to holiness is a universal vocation. It is lived by some in holy orders and by some in holy matrimony, and it is how the world today hears and is invited to accept the gift of God’s love. All of us are invited by God to be the light that pierces the darkness. All of us are invited to share that light with everyone we encounter. Let us accept the gift. Let us answer the call.