TRYING TO CHOOSE A REAL CHRISTMAS
Years ago I led a tour to Europe, and one of the stops was at Pisa, in Italy, famous for the “Leaning” Tower of Pisa, but we were very pressed for time, so we stood there, with the long row of souvenir shops on one side and the actual tower on the other, and the dilemma was: go for the souvenirs, the facsimile – or the real thing. Many opted to grab a few souvenirs and skip seeing the actual thing. I thought, what a parable of spiritual life in our time!
Christmas can very easily be steered off in the direction of unreality and excess, with all the stress, envy and disappointment that entails. At no time is our tendency to preoccupy and distract ourselves more obvious. As someone said: “What man has to sell becomes more important than what God has given” In our part of the world, where commercialism is like a religion, people are defined as consumers or tax-payers, and the shopping malls are our cathedrals, the malls become our gathering places, the places where we feel fulfillment and belonging, and we are validated by how much we can spend.
With many businesses promoting Boxing Day (or “Week”) starting in November, and the 12 days of Christmas being counted down in early December, the beautiful season of Advent, with its reminders of God’s promises of justice, equality, peace and enduring presence in Christ, is swept aside impatiently, as if to say, “let’s get to the presents, let’s get on with the party!” But it’s a party that seems to have no focus, no object, no purpose – a birthday party with the guest of honour missing.
It is ironic how a story of the birth of a child in humble circumstances, under oppression from the elite and powerful of the time, becomes in our day a splashy festival co-opted by the elite and powerful to sell a life-style almost completely at odds with the values that Jesus represents.
Some of the commercials I have seen not only suggest that happiness derives from getting the latest thing – a number of ads imply that happiness derives not just from the gift exchange itself, but from the fact that your giving it makes someone else, like your neighbour, feel miserable and jealous and inferior. Happiness that derives from someone else’s unhappiness is, I would suggest, a LONG way from the spirit in which the original St Nicholas started a tradition of anonymous gift-giving, mostly to help the poor, and the desolate.
In our world we have ended up with souvenirs of Christmas – Nativity scenes, Santa Claus, tin stars, etc — reminders of a once vibrant truth and experience – we have facsimiles but not the reality of Christmas, which is the Spirit of Christ and the good news of God among us, lifting up the oppressed and giving hope to the marginalized, and drawing all people together around the person of Christ.
It might be nice to get a new Mercedes for your three year old (after all, turning three is a big deal!) but somewhere, someone has to raise the question of actual need, and bigger questions about the sustainability of the earth’s resources, if we continue to think we are obliged to keep using them up in manic fashion. A society that’s based on envy, addiction, and greed is not going to be a pleasant place to live. The commercial Christmas sets us all against each other, especially at a time of year when the God of the universe is calling us together.
One of the lovely hymns of Christmas has the line: “He came down that we may have love.” Love is the only gift that means anything at Christmas! Keeping up with the Jones’s, meeting obligations, or spending yourself into a black hole have very little to do with it
The irony of the story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is that sometimes it is only by taking everything away that we can re-discover the essence, the deeper reason for the celebration. Yet it seems to me that I hear many people starting to stand back from the thing (whatever it is) that Christmas has become in our society – this phenomenon so completely removed from the original story and its meaning and purpose.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of the way God broke “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.” As God brought liberation to the ancient people of Israel “through a son,” so that gift is offered to us as we turn toward Christ at Christmas. The commercial demands and pressures of this season feel to many like a tyranny from which we need to be liberated. Isaiah also said: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Maybe the light has gone on, because I hear many people saying, like the people of Whoville, that they want to unplug, strip it back, make it simpler and more personal – they don’t want to go broke every year, they don’t want to feel guilty, they want to stop the insanity and re-discover the spiritual meaning of Christmas and the love and hope and peace that spring from it.
This year, my eldest daughter sent a letter to friends and family suggesting a different approach to Christmas. It read, in part: “Each year our kids get more stuff than they know what to do with. James and Julia have a few favourite toys that they play with regularly and the rest lie forgotten until it’s time to clean up the playroom. …. We decided to have this year be a NO TOY Christmas. James and Julia really don’t need anything other than to know they are loved. They have enough toys, clothes and books to last them a lifetime. We would like to instill in them the understanding that Christmas is not about what you get but appreciating what you have and that includes the family around them. We have discussed at length the reason we have Christmas and are determined to keep Christ in Christmas and avoid materialism.”
While I’m not sure how my grandchildren are going to be able to wear those same clothes when they’re 25, the point is well taken.
Ironically, there is danger of becoming a Grinch if we get too caught up in the pursuit of a true or pure Christmas. There is no such thing. And sneering and frowning at and despising people whose concept of Christmas does not line up with ours isn’t going to make us much of a witness to the value of what we claim to be celebrating.
There is much that is magical and beautiful in the way our whole society gets motivated to “get in the spirit.” But I do think that those of us who follow Christ can do a lot to help our fellow citizens in re-discovering the joy that comes from the love of God, so that the things we exchange are a by-product, rather than the reason for the season.
I was always glad that I made that choice, of the real over the representation. The tower and cathedral at Pisa are a real wonder, and seeing them was a worthwhile and enriching experience. At Christmas, the promise is renewed once again, of the possibility of direct access to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. For me, that is what the celebration is about: the experience of Emmanuel, God with us.
Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Readings for Christmas Day:
Isaiah 9: 2—7 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
John 1: 1—14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2He was in the beginning with God.3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people.5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. *He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him.12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth.