If there is one thing you are almost guaranteed to hear this Christmas season besides covers of Jingle Bells endlessly on repeat in Westfield is a railing against materialism. ‘Tis the season. After all, the amount of money that will be spent, and the amount of plastic that will produced is beyond conception. It can be overwhelming to come home on Christmas night and take in the amount of junk that has been brought forth.
Is materialism really the problem though? What if our malaise has been misdiagnosed? What if the heart of our problem lay not in materialism, but the lack of it. This is the conundrum of much of the Western world according to American theologian William T. Cavanaugh:
‘What really characterises consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.’ – William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.
On the macro level, Cavanaugh argues that the GFC was caused, not by materialism, but the desire to transcend material, corporeal constraints like factories in favour of intangible financial assets. On the more subjective and personal level, the reason you end up with a pile of plastic on the evening of December 25 is not because is not because we love stuff; rather, we don’t love stuff enough. We see it as disposable and insignificant.
The gospel tells a different story. It says that God created this world not out of scarcity, but out of the abundance of his love. For this reason every good part of creation is to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.1-5). In fact, Paul’s charge to the rich via Timothy is that our riches are not for our certainty, but given by God for our enjoyment.
How will you celebrate Christmas this year? This is not so much a question of the emotions – for the consideration of the emotions alone leads to mere sentimentalism – but of the affections. How will the content of the Christmas festivities shape your celebration? The guiding maxim of the early church Fathers is helpful at this point. They argued that the unassumed is the unhealed; that is, if Christ is the salvation and restoration of humanity (and all of creation), then he must, of necessity have become truly human. This wonder of the incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity that we celebrate at Christmas profoundly shapes how we celebrate. Because God has not abandoned his creation to absurdity and nothingness, we are able to delight in his creation. Not for its own sake, but to receive it as a gift, with thanksgiving. It enables us to give abundantly at Christmas, just as God has given abundantly to us. You would want to do this wisely, appreciating the creation rather than contributing to its denigration. But apprehending this truth drives from our heart the miserly spirit which can neither give nor receive. The gift of God’s Son reminds us that everything it is to be gratuitously received as a gift from the maker and redeemer of all things.