When I was a little girl, we celebrated Epiphany at our church.  For those who may not know, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.  In our parish, we brought small gifts to a special Mass and laid them in front of the crèche.  It was explained to me that the gifts would later be distributed to “The Needy,” which to me meant anyone who didn’t get gifts at Christmas.  Usually, my mother would give me a dollar to buy something like bath soap or after-shave lotion.  I would walk to the drug store and search the shelves for something that fit my budget, carry it home, and wrap it in pretty paper.  Presenting my gift to the baby Jesus was exciting and heartwarming.  It was at that crèche that my social conscience began to bud.

The Christmas before my eighth birthday, the nuns urged us to consider “sacrificial giving.”  They explained that giving from one’s excess was not a gift at all; that a true gift was something of great value that its owner gave up for another.  True sacrifice, they said, would bring a smile to the baby Jesus.

As the day of the Epiphany Mass grew closer, I thought about this at length.  My childish ignorance made me unaware that my parents were already sacrificing in order to supply gifts for the Mass.  Instead, I wrestled with the concept of personal sacrifice, and how much I was willing to make this a reality in my own life.  I wanted to make Jesus smile.  As the January date approached, I knew I had to make a decision, no matter how painful.

The day of the Mass approached.  I had made up my mind.  Slowly, I wrapped my gift.  It was a stuffed bunny I had received that year from Santa.  Soft and yellow, with blue gingham ears, it had been my constant companion since I unwrapped it a few weeks before. I loved it as much as a little girl can love a stuffed animal. Eyes streaming, I took the bundle to my mother to put with the other gifts.  Realizing what I had done, my mother drew me to her lap, stroked my head, and explained that although Jesus would very much appreciate my gift, “The Needy” probably would make better use of the talcum powder on her dresser.  She asked me to fetch it and wrap it for her.

I now suspect that “The Needy” were people in nursing homes, who indeed had little use for a yellow stuffed bunny.  I wonder, though, if this was my mother’s way of sparing her little girl the pain of giving up someone she loved.  I kept my bunny, and loved it until the yellow turned brown and the blue gingham tore away from the fur.  But the seed had been planted, and the concept of sacrificial giving flourished.  I remember that Epiphany every time I consider what to donate to a food drive, or how much of my time to volunteer, or when I kiss a loved one goodbye as she leaves for a mission trip.  In the end, the nuns were right.  Sacrificial giving brings a smile to Jesus.  It makes me feel pretty darned good, too. 

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