Most of us are familiar with the charming short story, “The Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry, wherein an impoverished young couple ponders how to give each other meaningful Christmas gifts when there is no money to be had. In sum, she sells her hair to buy him a chain for his watch, only to discover he has sold the watch to buy a comb for her hair. While many take delight in the irony of the ending, an equally important theme is the unbridled joy each takes in giving, despite the comical uselessness of each present. Each gesture was infinitely more meaningful than its end.
The bearing this tale has on the essential truth of Christianity is that the complete gift of self is both fulfilling and life-giving. Children who are encouraged to do favors for others often discover early in life the richness of this truth—from carrying groceries for a grandparent, to collaborating on fund-raisers for those in need. Occasionally, they will even reflect a visible glow, which may be for them as unexpected as it is satisfying, for in this way do they learn that virtue is indeed its own reward.
This Christian truth applies to the family in an essential way, because at the heart of the spousal union is the call to mutual submissiveness. From the hand of God, the love of the man for the woman—and vice versa—are ordered in such a way that they prosper most in selflessness. When a man places himself at the complete disposal of others, for whom he will protect and provide, and a woman gives herself without reserve to her husband, knowing that he would lay down and die for her own good, there is a joy that cannot be compared to that attached to calculated love, or that which holds self-interest paramount.
Of course, in a fallen world, a man is tempted to hold unjust dominion over others, and a woman—through fear or envy—is often inclined to manipulate her environment or withhold herself as a safeguard. How hard it is to trust when it involves vulnerability or injury, and a secular practicality calls each to throw up defenses and tread carefully at all times.
John Paul II certainly knew of family struggles, betrayal and legitimate grievances. From the personal encounters in parish ministry to the political intrigue of menacing regimes, he was no stranger to the effects of sin. Indeed, in Mulieris Dignitatem he acknowledges the particular burdens that women carry. After enumerating relevant Biblical accounts of women who endured so much, he refers to contemporary examples of those who still suffer through their marriages, their motherhood, their abandonment and marginalization (cf. MD, 19).
And yet, fully aware that to love means to suffer, he insists: love anyway. The paradox is that only by giving fully of oneself can one receive the fullness of joy intended by the Creator. The paradox of Christianity insists that only in giving do we receive. “Christ has entered this history and remains in it as the Bridegroom who ‘has given himself.’ ‘To give’ means ‘to become a sincere gift’ in the most complete and radical way” (MD, 25).
So what does a woman receive through the gift of herself? Nothing other than her very dignity. “A woman's dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity; it is likewise connected with the love which she gives in return” (MD, 30). Surely, such a generous path can be terrifying, but the Bridegroom Himself showed us the way—and no other would be so rewarding.
Published in 2007