For Christians around the world, December 25th marks the shift from Advent to Christmas. That is, from a four-week penitential season, marked primarily by longing and waiting, to a twelve-day festal season celebrating the birth of Christ, the advent of our Lord born to a Virgin in Bethlehem.
We all know that the Christmas season is marked by giving, as it is when God gave his Son to reconcile God and man. This “spirit of giving” is realized even in the excessive consumerism of contemporary capitalism: the obsession with shopping, buying, wrapping, and gifting is a perversion of the true spirit of Christmas, to be sure, but it is still a manifestation of the Christmas season regardless.
However, the significance of giving during Christmas is largely unnoticed. The “meaning” of Christmas is clouded by our obsession with gift-giving which distracts from the existential significance of the season—wherein we learn that charity is a fitting way for each of us to become more fully ourselves.
The critical thing about Christ’s gift is that it was total. While we give gifts (whether few or many), Christ did not give gifts but gave, instead, himself. And he gave himself entirely: “Christ did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”
In the Christian tradition, this “self-gift” is known as kenosis. When Saint Paul writes that Christ “emptied himself,” the Greek root here is kenosis, meaning to pour out or to empty. Thus at the heart of God’s being is the activity of self-emptying, of pouring oneself out for the sake of others, giving entirely and freely of oneself for the good of others.
Christians also understand humans to be made “in the image of God”: we are in some sense “like God.” So if God is essentially “self-emptying,” then it stands to reason that humans, too, are called to be self-emptying. We are to strive to be like Christ, because that’s when we are most truly ourselves, when our lives are modeled after Christ’s.
The “most human” person, then, is the most “kenotic” person—that is, someone who is constantly “emptying” himself for the sake of others, giving entirely of himself for the good of others. Charity, then, is natural and proper for humans. It is a “kenotic” activity for us as a way to give of ourselves by giving our hard-earned money, freely, for the benefit of others.
It is important for fundraisers to understand that giving is a natural human activity. It is too easy to think that donors give because they are rich and have excess money. It's not untrue, of course, that an organization's biggest donors are typicaly high-net-worth individuals—but wealth alone is inadequate to explain charitable giving (and it shouldn't be the case that all of your donors are extremely wealthy).
More than simply offloading spare cash, charity is a way for humans to be more like Christ—which is to say, more like themselves. By giving time, money, or other goods, we empty ourselves for the sake of others, just as Christ emptied himself for our sake. In other words, charity is a natural human activity. In is not the exclusive right of the ultra wealthy and, more importantly, we should not see it as a burden to place on others (or ourselves). Giving is right and proper for humans, and in giving we become more fully ourselves—and in asking others to give, we offer them an opportunity to empty themselves for the good of others.
But this also raises the question of how to be truly charitable.
Last week, Nathan Washatka used Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as an example of real charity. Shown the consequences of his selfishness—the way he grasps at his money, is jealous of his time, and is ungrateful for the hard work of his employees—Scrooge undergoes an overwhelming conversion: from the paradigmatic money-grubber to the “holy fool” pouring his wealth out with a generosity that would make even the most seasoned gift officer blush.
This example is extremely apt. To return to Christian theology briefly: Saint Paul also wrote that Christ “came into the world to save the sinners of whom I am foremost.” The gift of Christ’s self, God’s self, was not and is not offered after a certain “threshold.” This gift is not contingent upon realizing certain benchmarks. Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, born alone in a manger, into a sinful and war-torn world—for the sake of sinners, of whom I am foremost.
If charity is a form of self-emptying, and if we are looking to Christ as the perfect example of self-emptying, then our charity might look something like the converted Scrooge. His charity was untethered to metrics and spreadsheets, but bound instead to local concern and affection. He bought the biggest turkey for Tiny Tim out of felt affection, not a calculated decision. He gave to the local homeless because they were, well, local and homeless.
The Christian theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart, famously said that Jesus could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but this would be meaningless if he were not born daily in our hearts. As we celebrate his birth during Christmastide, it is essential that Christ is born in our hearts as well, and that means conforming our lives to him, becoming evermore self-emptying.
As we form “new Nazareths in us,” becoming more like Christ, we should expect our charity—whether gift-giving or check-writing—to look more like Scrooge’s excessive generosity. And we might use the Christmas season—when “giving is in the air”—as a time to practice generosity. Christ is born today in Bethlehem; may he be born, too, in our hearts as we learn to give like him and so to become more like him, emptied.