Christmas time seems to be the epicentre of the real spiritual battle in the Western World.
On one side of the fight is the god of commercialism who wears a coca-cola coloured suit, rewards people for being good boys and girls and encourages them to use credit.
On the other side of the battle is the baby born in Bethlehem whose death on a cross means that love is unconditional.
The god of consumerism requires us to be dissatisfied with who we are and what we have, and this version of Christmas holds the promise that we might finally get the stuff that will help us feel better about ourselves.
Apparently, the average child in the U.K. will get 16 presents under the tree this year, and the average parent will spend 316 pounds ($650) on those presents according to the Daily Mirror. Its safe to assume that kids in the U.S., Canada and Australia will be benefitting from the same kind of numbers. Does anyone else think that’s a bit crazy?
I was fascinated to discover that in the 1800s and early 20th century, Christians actively opposed Christmas both because of its pagan origins and because if its commercialism. Christians in North America now have shifted to the point now where the fact that Starbucks didn’t have an obviously Christmas themed cup caused an uproar.
As Skye Jethani points out in his book The Divine Commodity:
In less than a century, Christians have gone from opposing over-consumption at Christmas to demanding it be done in Christ’s name alone….
Jethani suggests that part of the reason the church has bought the consumer story of Christmas is simple pragmatism:
If Christians engaged in the Advent season as they did in generations past, by modelling moderation and self-denial, or by ignoring the holiday altogether, it would likely destroy the economy.
For me, the battle between the god of commercialism and the baby born in Bethlehem is very personal.
Four years ago I wrote a reflection, almost as a confession, as I realized how much emphasis I had placed on measuring my own value based on the values of commercialism. I measured my value based on what I had or what I was given. For me, Christmases and birthdays were always mixed with self-centred sadness as the reality could never match the fantasy that I had concocted in the leadup to the big day.
I had been in Christian ministry for fifteen years before I started to glimpse the reality that I had spent a lot of energy worrying about the agenda of the wrong god.
It wasn’t just the presents I received, I found a sense of okayness from the car I drove, the phone I had or the technology I used. I would feel somehow inadequate if my phone was more than 2 years old, which I realise for many people seems bizarre.
I am enjoying reading another of Sky Jethani’s books, With, at the moment. It is putting into words some of what God has been showing me. He writes:
A great many of us have come to believe that hope and significance is an external construct- something contingent on our circumstances. As a result we fail to believe that the Christian life, at least in its fullest and most abundant form, can be lived anywhere.
God has taken me on a journey to discover that the external stuff is not a healthy place to get my identity from. I now find myself using older stuff that works fine. It’s nice to be able to report that I actually have grown to the point where Leeanne and I have agreed that this year we actually won’t get one another gifts, and I am actually feeling good about it.
It’s not that I think presents are wrong at Christmas, (we have had fun purchasing stuff for the kids), it’s just that at this stage of our life it seems right to spend the money we have on other stuff. I am learning the truth of what Paul wrote about in Philippians 4:
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
(Philippians 4:11-13 NIV)
Life really isn’t found in the box, its found in the baby born in Bethlehem.
A couple of years ago I wrote another Christmas reflection where I briefly shared something I had found written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His words ring true at this time of year:
Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?
Whoever finally lays down
all power, all honor,
all reputation, all vanity,
all arrogance, all individualism
beside the manger.