The greatest gift
God has given us a gift – his Son! Like St. Paul, we want to hand on what we have received. (I Cor 15:3) How well are we doing with this great gift?
Christian Smith (Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Oxford Press, 2009) has studied a large group of young people from across the country from the time they were 13 until they were 23. He wanted to know how religion fits into their lives. His conclusion is a challenge: if parents and other adults “who care about youth wish to nurture emerging adult lives of purpose, meaning, and character – instead of confusion, drifting, and shallowness – they will need to do better jobs of seriously engaging youth from early on and not cut them adrift as they move through the teenage years.” (p. 299) He finds that religious commitment for most of the young 20s who have maintained such a commitment was initially formed at around the age of 14.
Parents, of course, play the critical role in this handing on. The teen years are not the time to abandon this project – but rather to increase it. Smith notes that the stakes are high, not just for a life of faith, but also for a life of real quality, since a life of faith affects so many other aspects of one’s well-being, as he notes in his studies of those in their 20s.
This all comes to mind as we observe Advent and Christmas. This is a season of receiving a great gift through the Son of God – our salvation. It is also a time of handing on gifts to others. Yet, this is where it gets a bit tricky. For this is not a thing that we pass on to the next generation, for it is not a thing we have received. Rather, it is about a relationship – our relationship with Jesus and with his bride, the Church. Ultimately, this is about our ability to give ourselves as a gift. We cannot just hand on Jesus or his Church to someone else. We cannot hand on salvation to someone else. No, we can only give ourselves – ourselves as being in relationship with Jesus, ourselves as members of his body, the Church, ourselves as having tasted salvation.
A major question for all of us is how will this gift of ourselves be received by the next generation. Once out of the home, they are spending more time in school (colleges), not working (because there are no jobs), not making commitments (many still being cared for by parents), but incredibly busy about many things (educational and social).
The great challenge, of course, is to help this next generation get beyond itself, to help them see what the true goal of life is – true love. The example which adults today provide by being sacrificial in the way they live their lives for others is nothing other than the same love with which Jesus loved us.
This brings us to the heart of this time of year. We need a renewed focus on Jesus as the gift of God to us, on Jesus who bore the cross to show us how to love, and on Jesus who has given us the Church as his body and bride. If we adults can deepen our love for this great gift of Jesus, then perhaps we will be providing the best formation for our teens who will eventually be the next generation’s adults.
A blessed Advent and Christmas to you all.