I pass several churches on my route to visit patients at the local hospital. Often, I laugh out loud at the sophomoric messages on the moveable-letter signs in front of those churches.
There is the ever-popular “7 days without prayer makes 1 weak.” There is the slightly thoughtless, “Do you know what Hell is? Listen to our pastor.” Memorable, but confusing, is “Give God what’s right, not what’s left.”
Recently, I saw a message that made me laugh in exactly the same way I had laughed at previous messages. The message said, “Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father.” This one appeared to be nothing more than the usual Christmas season twaddle. Obviously, nothing in this world is perfect. To assess any person or thing as perfect is to live in the same fantasy world as those who consider biblical prophecy to be predictions about the future.
As I neared the hospital, I began to have nagging doubts about my original judgment. At first, I assured myself that perfection is an impossibility in this world. Those nagging doubts, however, led me to reexamine my derisive judgment about the sign’s message.
I began to think about the people whom I consider to be gifts from God. I treasure my nieces and nephews; I’ve even been known to say about them that, “They are perfect in every way.” Many years ago, I met a married couple through my interactions with the faculty at the University where I was the Catholic campus minister; they are fun, intelligent, interesting people whose company I enjoy thoroughly. On a regular basis, I hear from people whom I met when they were students at the University; it’s a blessing to see them grown, married, successful, and happy. This year, as in past years, I’ll have Christmas dinner with friends whom I’ve known for decades; the time I spend with them fills my holidays with profound joy.
After having laughed at the church sign’s message, I reevaluated my dismissive attitude. Much to my surprise, I had to admit that there are good and perfect gifts given by God the Father. The type of “perfection” I find in these people whom I’ve mentioned isn’t the abstract type of perfection that is the aspiration of western cultural values. The type of perfection one finds in God’s good and perfect gifts is the experience of created goodness that lifts one’s mind and heart toward God.
Christmas, the feast of the Nativity, is the preeminent good and perfect gift. In the Incarnation, God took on the humble state of our human nature. Our less than perfect nature was perfected by God, but in a way that is easy to misunderstand.
It remains true that moral perfection is beyond our reach and that no created thing is perfect in a philosophical sense. Nonetheless, our human nature has been perfected by God’s favor; we have been made perfect in the sense that God has given us the opportunity to realize fully the capacities of our limited nature.
God has made it possible for us to love one another appropriately and to give to God the worship that God deserves. These two acts comprise the perfection that is possible and appropriate to human persons in a finite and imperfect world: we are capable of loving God and neighbor.
It is most appropriate to celebrate the good and perfect gift of God’s favor together, in this church, as a community of faith. The Church has been described as Sacramentum mundi, the Sacrament of the world. Quite obviously, there is no moral perfection to be found in the Church, but the Church provides us with the experience of the perfecting power of God’s good and perfect gifts.
The Church proclaims the Gospel message that teaches us how to love God and neighbor in the ways that God and neighbor deserve to be loved. When we gather as a community of faith, we become a sacramental presence of God for one another; we have the experience of being Sacramentum mundi, the Sacrament of the world, God’s good and perfect gifts.
On this feast of the Nativity of our Savior, I would like to encourage you to spend all of your time and attention pursuing the perfection that is possible in this finite world. I encourage you to cherish, love, and respect your relatives, friends, and acquaintances; they are created instances of God’s uncreated love. The people whom you love and who love you are sacramental signs of God’s goodness. We, gathered in this church, are the most fortunate of all people because we have received good and perfect gifts from the Father and we know how to give appropriate thanks to God for those gifts.