By a weird quirk of timing and the way the Presbyterian Church works, I landed in the Courier Mail’s ‘religious round-up’ Christmas story yesterday. I was asked to provide around 300 words reflecting on the significance of Christmas. Here’s the story as it ran.
Here’s what I said in my 300ish words (I’m pretty happy with the edit).
Holidays. We Aussies can’t get enough of them. While more of us than ever before are letting go of religion, especially the institutional variety, we cling to these days of celebration and rest. There’s nothing we love more than to eat, drink, and be merry with our family and friends; so we will still raise a glass to the birth of the Christ once a year to keep this holiday in our shared calendar.
The western calendar — and thus, our public holidays — once marked the passing of a year through a series of ‘holy days,’ now our retailers mark the calendar for us according to a new “religion”; the belief that consumer choice is ‘Christ’ (which means king), and that the key to joy, and to salvation from the mundane, is “more good things. Christians have often been accused of stealing pagan ‘holy days’, but now our ‘holy days’ have been co-opted by this religion. Shopping centres are the temples for this religion, and you can be sure their halls will be decked with Halloween merchandise each October, then Christmas paraphernalia, and as surely as the sun will rise on Boxing Day, we’ll find Hot Cross Buns in the bakeries.
This raises the question: does this religious vision satisfy? Does it do a better job than what it replaces? Does it bring salvation or joy? Can we escape the irony of the carols that blare through our shopping centres at Christmas time? Carols like ‘Joy to the World’ that proclaim the subversive message of Christmas: that Jesus alone is king and saviour? That he alone brings real joy. That the things we turn to on our ‘holy days’ won’t deliver the goods? The rest we enjoy on our holidays is short lived if we have to keep working to buy our salvation and joy. Fight Club had it right; the things we own end up owning us. This new religion of consumerism is not freedom, but exactly the sort of joyless drudgery and captivity to the mundane that Jesus came to save us from. Why not ponder what makes your holiday ‘holy’ this year? Merry Christmas.
Which is all to say I’m now ‘on the record’ about the crass materialism of the ‘secular Christmas’… and yet, I’m a big fan of Christmas being ‘material’ and gifts being generous and even impractical (ie things a person doesn’t ‘need’ but things that are fun, delicious, or beautiful). I think the commercial takeover of Christmas is pretty terrible — but this isn’t because Christmas isn’t about material things; it absolutely is. That’s the whole point. Creator in creation. Materially.
The problem with the modern disenchanted, secular, Christmas is not that people are materially generous, but that we have flattened the paradox of Christmas. Christmas isn’t just material, or just spiritual. The magic of Christmas is the fusing of material and spiritual — the Christmas story is the story of the divine, the transcendent, the infinite, or the Spiritual — the ‘other’ — entering the realm of finite, fleshy, earthy, material, existence. It is an awful, gnostic, mistake to push back against the hyper-physicality of the consumerist Christmas by totally hyper-spiritualising our response, by de-crying material generosity and gift-giving, or looking for less material alternatives because we ‘have stuff already’ (and I loved how Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen discussed this in episode seven of their podcast). Christmas is about abundance and sacrifice, it is about riches and poverty, the spiritual and the material… it is about a generous physical gift from God — from Jesus himself — who gives up an eternity of ‘spiritual’ existence to become fully divine and fully human, for the rest of eternity.
Nobody grappled with paradox in the Christian faith better than G.K Chesterton who called Christians to remain ‘orthodox’ on issues of extremes by holding both extremes and holding them furiously… he wrote lots on the paradox of the incarnation, and especially of Christmas. And it’s worth sitting with these words while navigating an antidote to consumerism that isn’t an over-correction that wipes out the material generosity of God to us in Jesus — such that our Christmas gifts to one another are tangible, tactile, celebrations of the God who in Jesus became tangible and tactile, a taste that God does not loathe the material but creates, sustains, enjoys and renews it.
“The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.”
But it’s not just luxury and riches, either. This generosity can’t just be for the ‘haves’, but our generosity to one another should push out to hospitality and generosity to the ‘have nots’… Here’s more Chesterton exploring more of the paradox of God’s entering the story as a king born in a stable, turned aside and rejected by all.
“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
So, I hope you got some wonderful presents that point you to God’s wonderful present to you, that teach you the joy of giving wonderful presents to others, to point them to God’s wonderful present (you get the picture — our gift giving and our gifts have a purpose beyond themselves). Merry Christmas.