This is the season of giving. Nothing except the birth of the Savior (itself a gift) is more distinctive about Christmas than this. Besides fanning out through multiple department stories over many days and hours in search of something wonderful to present family or friends for this unique holiday, we give the gift of ourselves in love and affection. These are truly wonderful things which brighten up the human condition for a few weeks at least each year, but there are still more wonderful gifts for which we do not deserve any credit although we are responsible for their proper use. I mean the gift of life and of all the real potential for good in our lives.
We live in a scientific age in which many of our greatest intellects are convinced that life and everything that is a part of it can be engineered, not to mention ended if a power or authority decides that some persons’ lives are not worth living.
As in ancient times, it is today an act of moral and spiritual boldness to cherish life, the condition for all good things. Whereas the Israelites were surrounded with peoples for whom child sacrifice was a thoroughly established tradition, God’s chosen people (as they understood themselves) regarded human life as a precious gift from God not lightly to be squandered. Indeed, nothing illustrates the value of life more than the grief we feel when our loved ones die.
When sensible people speak of duty and gratitude, two virtues not much in favor these days, they rank life as the greatest of all gifts to uphold and appreciate. That’s why the framers of the U.S. Constitution included among that document’s greatest purposes security of liberty for our posterity, as well as for the living generations.
The patriotic citizen, then, no less than the pious man, understands that life is the most fundamental of all gifts and therefore the cause of our greatest obligations. We must preserve, protect and defend it as much as we do the charter of liberty that aims to secure it.
Human life is not mere biological existence but the whole panoply of human possibilities. We well know that our mind, spirit or body can be devoted to bad and even evil purposes no less than to good ones, so everything depends on knowing what are our fundamental duties and rights. We have duties to ourselves and to others to promote human happiness, including justice. We have rights to remind ourselves that we must restrain the exercise of our powers.
The philosopher Leo Strauss once wrote that "the genius of Shakespeare is not the work of Shakespeare." He meant in no way to denigrate the achievements of that greatest of all English poets (or any other talented human beings) but to point to the fact that their potential for greatness was the necessary condition and that was due to powers beyond themselves.
Our lives are enriched because of these and other divine gifts. Whence comes our capacity for kindness, gentleness, compassion and sympathy which so uniquely marked the life and the eternal legacy of the God made into man whose nativity will be celebrated in churches all over the world this Christmas? Surely it is our choice to practice these virtues but our capacity for doing so is not our doing.
Consider too, the classical virtues of courage, prudence, wisdom and moderation. Marveling at the sacrifices young Americans have made and continue to make in the armed forces in defense of their country, President Reagan once asked, "Where do we get such men?" He was not in doubt as to the answer, this God-fearing man, and he exhibited the respect which the qualities of God’s children deserve.
Common sense has long distinguished between potential and actual achievement. We know that there are people with great gifts who never use them, or not to the degree to which they are capable. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle never confused potential intelligence with actual intelligence, reserving the name of this virtue for the actual use of it. The same can be said for all the other virtues.
The many failures of human potential–and worse, think of the Caesars, Napoleons, Hitlers and Stalins of the world–give us all the more reason to appreciate the gifts that we receive from our Creator and to develop them to the fullest, for even the greatest gifts can be abused. We show our appreciation for these divine treasures by treating each other with the greatest respect and glorifying the Author of all these things.