I’m a material girl…
This year, like every year (at least since the inception of Youtube) we have all been lucky enough to witness the madness that is Black Friday. This joyful event is usually followed by two reactions: 1. Comedy (the Onion’s “42 Million Dead in Bloodiest Black Friday Weekend on Record” being this year’s particular gem); and 2. Denunciation of consumerism. Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify that I am not an advocate of over-consumption, of the mad dash for a bigger and better TV every year, and of the general ‘throw-away’ culture. My concern is this: the denunciation of consumerism almost always slides into a more general denunciation of gifts. The “true meaning of Christmas,” we are told, is in our hearts and material goods should play no part in that. Christmas is about love, and not objects. The underlying message, I believe, is that material objects have everything to do with human greed and nothing to do with love. I disagree.
It is my contention that the same attitude underlies both the rejection of gifts (preferring the abstract love, peace, and joy of Christmas) and over-consumption. This same attitude is one of devaluing material goods. Throughout history, we have seen two reactions to this base opinion of the material. In the spiritual cults of the first few centuries who surrounded the nascent Christian church, there were two divergent responses to the belief that the material body was bad, that it was the anchor that weighed down the soul. Some of the cults responded with strong asceticism, others with extreme indulgence. Similarly today, when we pretend that material goods do not matter and should not be cherished, we either reject them in order to focus on the abstract and spiritual, or over-indulge.
This viewpoint forgets something crucial about human existence: we are material beings as well as spiritual beings. We have concrete needs, and we have long used these concrete needs, like food and shelter, to further relationships between people. Daily meals, shared at a table with family and friends, are a perfect example of this. Similarly, gifts remind us, in a tactile way, of the love we share for each other. This reminder functions in multiple ways. First, giving gifts forces to hold loosely to our own material goods, and be willing to make sacrifices of our own desires for those of others. For most of us, we need to scrimp and save over many months to have enough money for Christmas gifts. We deny ourselves things that we really wanted to buy in order to be able to give gifts to those we love. Secondly, gifts are often objects that find a place in our homes. Every time we see them, use them, or touch them, they remind us of the love we share with the giver of that gift. When I moved away from home, my mum gave me a Kitchen Aid mixer. I use that mixer at least once a week, and every time that I do, I think of her and the hours we spent chatting and cooking in the kitchen. Thirdly, our love in gift-giving participates in God’s gift-giving love. Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge, describes two practices which are at the heart of the Christian faith: giving and forgiving. These are the appropriate response to God’s generosity and Christ’s sacrifice. God is a gift-giving God; that is the heart of our reality. What does it mean that God is love? For Volf, it means that God is a gift-giver.
Does this mean that we ought to go out and buy a gift for everyone we know? Of course not. Nor does it mean that gifts should become more important than the relationship we share with those we love. But we should let gifts take their proper place in those relationships, remembering that our gift-giving participates in God’s gift-giving, and in his love.
May you know the joy of the angels, the wonder of the shepherd and peace of the Christ child this Christmas Season and may you know God’s blessing in the mystery of Christmas.
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