Every week or two in London you come across a band of bright young things in matching T-shirts, usually clustered round a van or a portable kiosk, giving out freebies. I tend to arc around them full of suspicion, wondering what the catch is. Do I have to sign something? Or take part in a poll? It’s usually a health bar or an energy drink. My most recent catch (I think it was at Victoria Station) was a mini-deodorant. This was one of the few times I’ve hovered around innocently in order to get a second gift – I was so delighted to get my hands on a spray-can small enough to take through airport security in the hand-luggage.
Free gifts. With no strings attached.
I went to a talk about the sacraments yesterday by Dr Clare Watkins, and halfway through she spent five minutes going through a Latin dictionary. Pretty boring, you might think. The reason, however, was to show that in Latin there is a single word, munus, that can mean both “gift/present” and “responsibility/duty”. One word; both meanings. She went on to explain that every gift we receive brings with it a call to responsibility. She said we should reflect more on the gifts that God has given us, and the gifts that others share with us, and see whether we are aware of the huge responsibilities that go with them.
I don’t think this means, in a cynical way, that every gift is really a bribe in disguise. Not at all. And in fact the duty to respond in some way, to appreciate and honour the gift in some way, is not about paying something back to the one who gave it. When a gift is freely given, out of a pure love and an unfeigned generosity – it’s exactly then that we realise how unworthy we are to receive anything at all, and how privileged we are to be able to put that gift at the service of others.
This is even more true when the gift is the gift of oneself – when I give myself to another in friendship or love, in marriage or family life. Then, if the gift is freely given (“without reservation” as the marriage vows go), the sense of responsibility is of another order. It’s not about obligation or paying back a debt; it’s the sheer wonder of standing before another human being, unguarded, knowing that they have given their own heart, and the desire to care for them as much as one cares for oneself.