Most people prefer to be known for their generosity during the course of their life, more than for their gratitude. And yet, some of our more lovely encomiums of people are words such as graciousness, or acting with grace—words closely associated with gratitude. Knowing how to receive a gift with graciousness is, in the opinion of many people, a better endowment than knowing how to give a gift with poise, and effortlessly.
But we often say to ourselves: it is better to give than to receive, though frequently the most pleasing expression we note on the face of another is the warm and heartfelt way in which they thank us for a gift we have given them. And some painful memories may return to us of times when a person to whom we have just given a gift opens it, and betrays displeasure with our gift. The cook of a meal experiences genuine gratitude, not from expressions uttered at the table, but from the empty platters and bowls found there at meal’s end.
Have we ever studied the bible in the effort to ascertain whether giving or thanking emerges more prominently within its pages? Giving, of course, receives considerable attention, starting with the love of God and neighbor: love is a supreme act of giving. And, at the last judgment, we understand that giving will be a prominent standard whereby we will be measured: food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, a visit to the imprisoned. But receiving also enjoys a high silhouette, as when Jesus receives on receiving no gratitude from healing nine of the ten lepers, or when He commented on the deliberate absence of hospitality shown him at the banquet given by the Pharisee, or when He obviously relished the time and attention Mary paid Him on the occasion of visiting her house, and that of Martha and Lazarus. And in the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalms of thanksgiving and praise are in abundance, for the favors God has bestowed on His people. So are giving and receiving equally important in the bible?
It is a pleasure to receive a gift, and equally pleasurable to show our gratitude to the gift-giver, and note his/her gratification at seeing how truly thankful we are at receiving such a gift. Generosity in gift-giving finds its compensation in the exuberance of the recipient of the item. The genuineness of the recipient’s response more than compensates for the given.
It is an art both to give and receive a gift. A very valuable gift can “come across” in the wrong way to the recipient, just as the recipient’s dismissal of one’s gift can possibly assume the dimensions of a disaster. A gift of clothing never worn or displayed is an obvious sign that the gift went unappreciated. This leads us to wonder whether knowing how to give a gift, even a modest one, or genuinely relishing the gift given is the more significant element in the activity around a gift.
It is possible both to misconstrue what the giving of a gift really means, and to misinterpret the message given in accepting the gift. Ideally, gifts, given or received, are not meant to generate suspicion, but a bonding together.
That is how it works between God and us. His gifts are designed to remove barriers between us. First, we pray to Him, petitioning Him for favors and help, and secondly we thank Him for the answer He gives us. Which prayer do we most often say to God: please give, or thank you? Our grace before and after meals nicely illustrate this. Before sitting at table we petition God to bless those providing the food before us, those whose who have provided it for us, and those in greater need of food than we. When finished, we bow our heads in gratitude for the gift received. In which prayer do we invest more energy?
While grace is a ritual at meal time, it also assumes a larger role. It refers to all those gifts God bestows on us throughout the day, especially what we traditionally called sanctifying grace and actual grace. Grace in this sense meant God’s other gifts, both major and minor ones. It illustrates God before us as Giver. This meaning of grace tends more toward gratitude for favors received than petition. Grace is a giving but it is also a receiving. So we pray “Deo gratias” meaning: “thanks be to God”. So at one and the same time grace involves giving and receiving. This is seen in the greatest gift, the eucharist, a Greek word meaning “thanks”. It best of all unites giving and receiving together. It is no longer a matter of distinguishing “to give OR to receive”, but of uniting them into “to give AND to receive.”