Two years ago, about two weeks into Advent, I posed a question to my class of high school sophomores: What will you get Jesus for His birthday? We spend so much time thinking about what we will give our loved ones—we are intentional, searching for the thing that will demonstrate how well we know them and their desires. Weeks of shopping aim to deliver a gift that will give them that feeling of Christmas magic. The hunt is epic, the purchase triumphant, and the joy of giving is reward enough. The reason for doing all this is, of course, Jesus’ birth; though I fear we often give Him so little.
“What do you mean, Ms. Karp? What can I give Jesus?” my students responded.
We discussed different ways we can make an offering to the Lord: fasting, participating in extra service work, paying attention to areas of prayer we struggle with, being consistent in prayer, getting flowers for the Mary statue, and so on. I explained to them that Jesus’ love language is quality time, so some extra time in prayer is always a good gift.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The more contemplative students really examined their prayer lives and opted to give Jesus the things they had been holding back in prayer. Others went with more concrete offerings. Despite the reflection being one of my own creation, I had no personal answer. I did not know what I could possibly have to give Jesus that would be good enough. I did not know what I could possibly have to give Jesus that would be good enough. Tweet This
The pinnacle of Christmas joy when I was a kid was Christmas 2002, when my sister and I received the ultimate gift. It was the thing we knew our parents would never buy us—something too big, too expensive and extravagant, too perfect…the Barbie Travel Train! I look back on this now with great fondness and treat it as an example of what Christ so often gives to us. He gives us things bigger than we allow ourselves to hope for. He gives us things that satisfy us so intimately. He gives us something perfect.
That Christmas two years ago, I wanted to give Jesus something that would make him “Travel-Train-happy.” My search for the perfect gift was frequently interrupted. Teaching at a new Catholic high school certainly kept me busy. I was in a new relationship at the time. And I was struggling with my health.
The fall of 2021 was the height of a long bout of what I referred to at the time as “mystery disease.” After more doctors than I care to count and a strange array of symptoms, I finally got a diagnosis, but only after my condition became severe enough to land me in the hospital. I never expected to have an autoimmune disease at twenty-five, and it certainly rocked my world. All the parts of myself that I loved were slowly slipping through my fingers. My curves melted away to reveal a skeletal frame, my long hair became half as thick, my rambunctious energy was replaced with a quivering frailty, and my spirits were at an all-time low.
Usually, I would have gone above and beyond in the gift-giving department. I would have harnessed my creativity and strong work ethic to pull off something remarkable. But at that time, I had nothing that could possibly be good enough. I had nothing left to give.
I remembered the gifts of the Magi, the dedication of the shepherds in their travels, and even the percussion solo of the drummer boy. I had little money left to give after medical bills, I could barely walk across the parking lot without feeling faint, and I was terrible at the drums. The prayers I had to offer were sad, angry, and confused; hardly the Gloria that Christ deserves.
Christmas Eve arrived, and I still had yet to answer for myself the question posed to my students: “What will you get Jesus for His birthday?” As tradition held, I would be singing in the choir with my family at Mass and acting as official page turner for my brother, the pianist. I looked out on the quiet church from the choir loft before Mass began. The strung lights illuminated the altar, and an empty manger sat quietly in front, awaiting the baby Jesus that our priest would process down with once Mass began. I saw that empty manger, and I felt my own emptiness. I wished for something good enough to give.
In answer to my silent prayer, a wave of peace washed over me, and I knew that the only thing Jesus wanted, the only thing that could make Him “Travel-Train–happy,” was me. Broken spirit, broken body, the humblest of offerings. That’s what He wanted most, if I was only willing to give.
“But it’s not good enough.” I whispered in the depths of my heart.
“But it’s all that I want.” I heard in reply.
The thought that Christ wanted me at a time when I was so displeased with myself was sobering, relieving, and enough to inspire a few silent tears. The ultimate gift is love, a full and free exchange of personhood. Mary lovingly submits her will when the angel Gabriel comes to her. She does not have to say fourteen novenas or fast for a month. She lays her life in God’s hands in loving trust. Christ gives Himself for us in the most intimate and radical way, so of course the thing He wants most is simply us in return.
I looked again at the manger and accepted that the frail and vulnerable self I had to offer was a perfect fit in that nativity scene. In a moment, I understood that even in my weakness, emotional, spiritual, and physical, I could still be pleasing to the Lord—and not just “pleasing” but, in fact, His most cherished gift.
Christmas looks very different this year. I am no longer Ms. Karp. I will be in Chicago with my husband, my first Christmas away from home. I am in clinical remission, and I praise God daily for my good health. I feel more like myself, but I still find myself asking, what does Christ desire most this Christmas?
My inclination to conjure up something grand remains. My energy and ambition have returned. I know in my heart of hearts that His request has not changed, but every year it is hard to believe. Though my imperfections are of a different variety now, they still do not deter Him. I have to remind myself of the many things I have to be thankful for and offer all that I am, all that I have, humbly at His feet.
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. —St. Ignatius of Loyola