Advent[ures] in Incarnation [11] | How Silently, How Silently…


There is only one thing on the children’s minds: presents. There has probably been only one thing on many of our minds these last few weeks: what to buy for who? How much is appropriate to spend? What did they give me last year? How will they think of me if I give them this?

It is in these thoughts that we subconsciously appreciate that there is no such thing as the ‘contentless gift.’ As Derrida and others have explored, every gift that is given carries with it some cargo. In The Complex Christ / Signs of Emergence I wrote about the importance of the gift economy over market exchange, for it is in these unbalanced gifts – a meal offered, a work of art produced – that relationships are deepened. In the market, all is balanced by payments. In the gift, an empty place is created, into which reciprocal gifts might at some point be offered.

But there is this other dimension to the gift economy, which makes it open to abuse in a way that the market is not. It is precisely because gifts carry with them a strong relational potential that they carry power. And as we come to Christmas it is vital that we are sensible to the power-imbalances that our gift-giving may carry with it.

In Luke 7 we read of Jesus being given dinner by a Pharisee. The meal is interrupted by a woman who comes in and washes Jesus’ feet with perfume. Jesus chastises those who rebuked the woman, and then proceeds to tell the Pharisee off for his own ungenerous thoughts – he hadn’t even followed normal hospitable practice when Jesus came in.

This story is problematic, for neither the Pharisee nor the woman had done as Jesus would have taught and kept their giving secret. Both had been ostentatious in their own way, both giving gifts with obvious cargoes. Yet it is only the Pharisee who is berated, perhaps because his gift was more deliberately an attempt to curry favour with a rising force in Judaism.

What is at stake in these gifts is the very spirit of giving. If we are giving only to receive something in return – favour, respect, forgiveness, power – then our gift is really no gift at all. I want to explore this in more depth in the last post in this series in a day or two, but for now it is sufficient to say: we should be conscious of what we are giving at this time of crazed parcel exchange, and conscious of what spirits may be at work in our giving and receiving.