By the time you’re reading this we should’ve survived another Black Friday. Since it’s typically marked by stampedes of people, “survival” does often describe that day. Some avoid it “like the plague,” while others “fight the crowds” but come away victorious. What severe language, invested with so much emotion: Conquest in hunting the best deals! Agony that it destroys families!
Amid it all, our Christian faith offers the gift of a counter-narrative. We don’t have to “buy into” the dominant and dominating structure. When we are captive, we return to the one who sets us free and gives us life abundantly. Our story is indeed focused on the birth of Jesus. But, again, that “reason for the season” isn’t a stick to whack others. It’s better our own measuring stick, a standard for consumer habits along with the rest of life.
With that, we can’t claim that Christmas should be pious and austere. This is a fleshy feast! Our Lord was born into our world, our bodies, our kind of existence. He needed to be cared for and nursed. He was given gold, frankincense, and myrrh and celebrated with glorious choirs. There’s background here for enjoying material good, for a party. Maybe even luxury and delight (both words connected to light—Latin lux—that comes into our darkness, John 1:5).
Yet with the revelation of who this Lord is, our celebration isn’t selfish reveling. A simple test of purchasing and gift-giving might ask: What does it really give and what does it really cost? “Fleshed out,” that could ask: Are kids happier and more beloved through another plastic object, soon to be cast aside? What wellbeing is extracted—for clothing, from the garment worker in Bangladesh? For an iPad, from Africans dangerously mining rare earth minerals or Chinese factory workers? What human and natural resources go into it?
At church we’ve offered alternative gifts, the olive wood carvings and oils that also care for Palestinian refugees, the ELCA Good Gifts that instead invest in poor communities, the Fall Bazaar that supports local artists.
I’d suggest these are important reflections for us as Christians on what we give and why. Giving gifts is good and even godly, but is not equated with spending money on objects. What of society’s goods come at the expense of betterment? When do wants interfere with needs? What is life-giving and worthy, and what isn’t? Further, a word from the 1st Sunday of Advent reminds you, “You are not lacking any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1st Corinthians 1:9). When do we say, “enough is enough”?
But lest we get too high and mighty in moralizing, our infant Lord Jesus also brings us back down to earth. Nothing we give or give up determines his presence with us. Not how much we expend or how meager our funds. With or without packages, boxes, and tags. It’s not from great and glorious traditions, nor abstaining from sacrilegious misbehavior.
After all, our God was born in a barn. In the stink of an unexpected circumstance, he made his appearance. Still he cuts through the crap to come into our midst. Nothing can take away the love of God in Jesus.
Yesterday I was at a store with shelves piled high with kitschy debris. Playing over the loudspeaker was the tidy religious sound of a brass ensemble heralding “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” That’s not only glaring contrast but exactly right. Through the chaos of our lives, “beneath life’s crushing load,” where we need it most, this is exactly where and why our God comes to be with us. “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
My hope for you and my expectation of our faith is, amid accursed cultural clutter and also sensual pleasures of the season, that you again get to delight in the blessing of the eternal enough!
a PS gift to you: With humor that is part of delighting in life, comedian Eddie Izzard re-tells the Christmas story, with Baby Jesus a little too-human and materialistic in asking the wise men for his Christmas and birthday presents. Click the image.