Last week, my commentary was on Wealth and Freedom — specifically, on the illusion that wealth brings us freedom. It followed on from Andrew's commentary on the pitfall of allowing ourselves to believe that possessing things is the key to living the life we ought to live.
It all sounds a bit grim, but I dare say Andrew and I are not the only people who have been singing from this particular hymn-sheet round about now. It's a common complaint at this time of the year. "The trouble with Christmas is, it's too materialistic these days." "It's all very well celebrating, but what about the real meaning of Christmas?"
There's plenty of foundation for these complaints. Christmas is a riot of spending and gluttony. The rule seems to be, if it can be indulged, it must be over-indulged. If you can still move, you haven't eaten enough. If you can stand, you haven't drunk enough. If there's an unused credit limit on your card, you haven't spent enough. More! More! More!
But, hey, Christmas is, after all, a celebration of the Incarnation. Maybe this is a time when it is appropriate to celebrate carnally.
Christmas is rightly celebrated in a materialistic way. We celebrate the fact that God took human flesh. Forget the sentimental carols and the tinsel and the robin-on-a-log nonsense. If the gospel means anything at all, it is that "God is with us". In the Incarnation, God takes human flesh and makes it holy. "He becomes what we are, so that we might become what he is."
So if ever there was a time to celebrate our flesh with eating, drinking, merrymaking and music, it's now. Christians should not be on the sidelines at Christmas, looking prim. We should show the world how to party!
The real problem is not Christmas; it's the rest of the year.
In the West we live every day as though it were a party. The reason why Christmas has become an orgy is that we already over-indulge the rest of the year, and a full-on orgy is the only way to make Christmas distinctive.
In the past, most people only got to feast and exchange big gifts on rare occasions. Most of the time, how much they could eat, what they could eat and, sometimes, whether they could eat at all, depended on the seasons, the weather, fortune, misfortune and a variety of other factors that they couldn't really control. That's why they chose to celebrate the material world with feasting and gifts. A 'carnival' was called that because you got to eat meat then.
Feasting and gifts, as I've said, are fine for us, but they're not special or remarkable. We eat meat every day, if we care to. If we want to make Christmas special we need to mark it by doing something we don't normally get to do.
For some of us, it might be spending time with people. Most of the year, we're rich but busy. We find it hard to make the time to go and see people, and not do anything in particular with them. And yet spending time with someone, when neither of you are pressed to achieve something during that time, making a gift to them of your scarce leisure, can be a real gift.
Or we could celebrate our material wealth by doing something that we wouldn't normally do with it. For instance, when our daughter was born, my wife and I bought a cow. Not for ourselves, of course, and not for our daughter. We bought an in-calf cow in Ireland and had it shipped — with other cows bought by other people — to a village in East Africa, where the cow was given to one family and the calf (in due time) to another. The idea was not only to benefit the families concerned, but, over time. to improve the breeding stock in the area generally.
An in-calf cow is fairly pricey, not to mention shipping it to Africa, and this isn't something we could afford to do every day, or even every year. But that's the point; we wanted to do something remarkable, to celebrate the safe arrival of our little girl and to acknowledge how richly we were blessed.
And maybe that's the kind of spirit we need to find for our Christmas celebrations. Yes, it's right and good to celebrate the blessings of the material world at Christmas, but we really need to find a way of celebrating them that acknowledges that they are special, a blessing, something enriched by God. Stuffing ourselves to the point of insensibility doesn't do it for us any more.
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