Summary: The gift of detachment will benefit us much more than any material gift.
The Christmas Gift of Detachment
“What did you get for Christmas?” people often ask after the long-awaited day arrives on Dec. 25. They wait for the coming of Jesus as they do the coming of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus. I read a story this week about a superior who received gifts from all the monks under his supervision except one. The one who didn’t give a material gift went later to the superior to explain. He said that monks living under a vow of poverty shouldn’t be giving such gifts, he thought. The superior, upon thinking it over, decided that the one monk who was different from the others in his thinking about material gifts was right. In fact, he was giving the superior the opportunity to receive and practice the spiritual gift of detachment.
To be detached is not necessarily to be in the common sense of indifferent or unenthusiastic. If you get a material gift you receive it graciously. If not, you don’t see the lack of it as a great loss, or really any kind of loss, but rather there is no real difference with or without the material gift.
St. Paul described his life saying that sometimes it involved all that he might have wanted. He lived well. At other times he was virtually destitute, shipwrecked spending many hours in the deep, and at other times he was even beaten almost to death. Still, his relationship with Jesus was worth far more than having to endure good conditions along with poor ones. He was detached from those conditions, as Job came to be in the Old Testament, realizing that whatever happened to him was God’s permissive will, something that as a creature he could never fully understand.
At one point in his life Job had all the earthly joys and satisfactions he could imagine, including a large and loving family, and herds of animals which were the measure of wealth at the time. Later he found himself with nothing but sack cloth and ashes, his wife urging him to curse God and die, and his friends urging him to confess sins he had no realization of having committed. When he realized that his wealth was not due to anything he deserved from his own efforts alone, and that the mind of God was far above the mind of man, God restored Job’s good fortune.
Well, what difference does it make if we look at what happens to us with disappointment or detachment? If we choose disappointment, or even resentment, and start to blame God for the sad events of life,
that sadness becomes considered part of our personality. It often leads to depression, when we tend to withdraw from life, start to procrastinate because we think whatever we do will be unsuccessful, and take on a negative perspective.
Especially at Christmas time, when we see those around us rejoicing, a good many of us contrast the lives of others with our own lives. Jealousy and envy start to settle in. We may see the success of others as due to special talents which we don’t have, so we see no point in trying harder. The lack of effort leads to further failure. The psychologists call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
Jesus said he came to lift the spirits and even the life situation of those who lived in misfortune. The sick, the blind, the poor, etc. were to have a reversal of fortune, but not always materialistically. The blind would see and the deaf would hear, but it would be seeing and hearing the word of God, by which they would become “enlightened.”
The prisoners would be freed, but from the grip of sin.
There are some churches whose pastors preach material success to their parishioners. The church building itself is often imposing, even luxurious. The sermons assert that God is a god of plenty, that the normal condition for humankind is one of abundance. If a person develops an attitude that is positive, that looks for possibilities of success, that moves ahead despite setbacks, then often material success will indeed be the result. Jesus cautions us; however, to use whatever wealth he gives us as a good steward. He says it will be more difficult for a rich man to enter into heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle. Difficult, Jesus says, but not impossible.
If we have the gift of detachment, then our identity is not found in our material wealth or lack of it, or our pleasure or lack of it. Yet those are the measures so often used to evaluate success in today’s world. They lead to bad judgments, like seeing no value in the life of a person who is too old or too disabled to work. Even the human life developing in a mother’s womb is given no value, so it is seen as all right to destroy it. Jesus was developing in his mother’s womb, however, so there must be great value in the birth process, from conception to the birth itself. We celebrate the birth process of Jesus during Advent.