Christmas is a time of giving. It is the celebration of the greatest gift of all: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given to us at his birth on Christmas day. One of the ways we celebrate that great gift is by the giving and receiving of lesser gifts.

Christmas gift giving can take different forms and give rise to different kinds of anticipation. Children look forward to receiving gifts on Christmas morning. They long for this most joyful and wonderful day of the year with such intensity that time seems to be in slow motion, as if that longed-for day might never arrive. Parents might also look forward to receiving gifts. For them, however, the anticipation of Christmas is more centered on the giving of gifts. How many shopping days do I have left? Will everything be ready in time? These kinds of anxious thoughts make time seem to move in fast forward, as if the long-prepared-for day were closing in like a trap. But parents also experience the joyful anticipation of seeing the happiness on the faces of their children as they open their gifts and are filled with the wonder and gratitude that pervade that joyful day.

As we mature, Christmas becomes less and less about receiving and more and more about giving. In a similar way, Christmas gift giving becomes less and less about the material gifts that we exchange and more and more about the love with which we exchange them. Most profoundly, Christmas gift giving becomes less and less about the gifts we exchange with each other and more and more about the gift we have all received from God: the gift of the Incarnation of Jesus, by which God has entered into our world as a helpless little child in order to save us from sin and fill with new life, new hope, and lasting joy. This is the real gift of Christmas. This is the gift that invests every Christmas gift with meaning and stands behind every expression of love.

Christmas is all about the gift of the Christ Child, our newborn savior and king. But even though the gift we receive for Christmas is God in the flesh, Christmas is not just about receiving. As Jesus said when he was sending his disciples on mission, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” (Matt 10:8). We receive at Christmas the gift of the Jesus’ birth. We receive this as a free gift from God at no cost to ourselves. What can we give in response to the one who literally has everything? How can we give in a way that reflects God’s gracious gift to us?

There is more than one right answer to these questions. Perhaps the best answer is that our giving in response to God’s gift to us takes the form of thanksgiving. We do this most especially at the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” On Christmas Eve, and again on Christmas Day, we come together to give thanks to God in our solemn and joy-filled Eucharistic celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. Giving back to God in this way is a vital and necessary part of responding to His Christmas gift. Still, Jesus’ instruction to give without cost was less about giving back to him and more about extending his gifts to others. We give in this way when we share with others the gifts the Lord has given us. We do this by giving gifts to our families and friends in the spirit of love that Christ shows to us. We also do this by giving to those in need.

Jesus tells us that giving to those in need is a way that we can imitate the love of God. He says, “Give to everyone who asks of you, and . . . lend expecting nothing back” (Luke 6:30-35). In that way, we can “be merciful, just as [our] Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

There are many ways in which we can extend our Christmas giving to those in need. There is no shortage of needy people in our world. There are also many worthy charities to which one might contribute. In the way that seems best to you and in to the extent possible for you, I hope you will make giving to the needy an important part of your gift giving at Christmas and throughout every new year. In that way, you will give in the way you have received from God: without cost, without repayment, with the mercy of the Father who, in giving us his Son, has shown us the greatest of all mercies.

As you think and pray about how you can give to those in need, I commend to you a group of people whose needs are particularly dire: those who suffer illness, whether in health care facilities or in their homes. You can give these brothers and sisters of yours the gift of your prayers, your time, and your love. Perhaps you have special talents or training that you can put at their service. Or maybe you have the ability to give them the gift of the Eucharist by becoming an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. No matter how you give to your sick brothers and sisters, you will discover in that giving a deeper meaning of Christmas and the whole of your life will become a time of giving.