The Problem of Christmas
Christmas often reveals our emptiness. In a season dedicated to giving, we discover our own neediness; in a season dedicated to family and friends, our loneliness comes into sharp focus.
Two voices offering solutions to the problem of Christmas can be heard above the background voice of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Winter Wonderland.” The first is the voice of consumerism. Buy stuff! Find the perfect gift for others, get the perfect stuff for yourself, decorate your house perfectly, and you will happy and joyful. The second voice counters by reminding us that people are more important than things, that we should focus on the really important part of Christmas: love, joy, peace.
It’s easy to critique consumerism, because it’s so evidently shallow. But the problem is that both voices are partly true and partly false.
The problem with the “shop your way to happiness” is not that it doesn’t work. The problem is that it does work, in the short term.
I am perfectly aware that shopping cannot bring me lasting happiness, but in the short term, buying stuff has a desirable immediacy and objectivity: you hand over the cash or the credit card, and you get something. A sandwich. A pair of new shoes.
Those shoes really will bring me a kind of happiness. If I’m in a bleak mood, buying something pretty, or treating myself to something indulgent to eat, actually makes me feel more cheerful. It really does. It won’t last… and if I rely on this kind of comfort, it will yield less and less each time… but it’s real while it lasts.
That’s why critiques of consumerism (including my own) are so often off the mark. We try to convince people to let go of a fleeting but real source of happiness, and what do we put into their empty hands?
Often nothing at all.
We may offer alternatives like “putting family first” or “enjoying family togetherness,” but these are abstract statements. In order to be meaningful, they have to be expressed in concrete actions.
Putting family first might mean skipping a friend’s Christmas party because your kid has a Lego League competition that day. Enjoying family togetherness might mean going to that party, or having a picnic at that Lego outing. The problem here is that as soon as we put these actions in the center, as a means of getting the happiness that we seek, they are sure to disappoint. If you are looking at your time with family as justifying the energy and attention of the holiday celebrations, then you’ll be calculating (consciously or unconsciously) whether you’re getting enough joy and cheer at any given moment. Family dinners rarely embody perfect joy and togetherness; they are usually either rather ordinary, or interwoven with tensions and personality conflicts. I’d like my holiday visits with family to be a “Family Joy Video Montage,” but in reality there are no edits, no smooth fades from one moment of cheer to another, and no background music to set the tone. Friendship is equally difficult to put in the center: what makes a friendship is the day to day connection, often mundane, sometimes difficult. We may not even recognize the “best of” moments when they’re happening.
If we put family, joy, and togetherness in the center of our expectations, then those expectations will inevitably be disappointed. No human being can hold up to the pressure of our desperate need for love, forgiveness, connection, and peace. I can speak from experience – when I am loaded with that burden, I am likely to crack, and lash out in frustration and anger. Not exactly what the Christmas specials promise.
Time alone isn’t necessarily the answer; if I am not at peace, then I will find my own company to be unsatisfactory.
When family, friends, and even solitude disappoint, shopping starts looking appealing again.
The little glow of pleasure from having something nice to wear, the satisfaction of being able to act and get a response right away, is real. And when the thrill wears off… the shoes will not be angry or disappointed with me. I can go shopping again.
And yet, and yet, we know that’s not the answer. As Christians, we try to get people to look further or deeper, but at what?
We cannot love the idea of Love, we cannot derive joy from the idea of Family.
We forget that Christmas is not a celebration of family, or togetherness, or love in the abstract.
Christmas celebrates the Incarnation of Our Lord. The Son of God took on flesh, took on a human nature, so that we might know him, not just know about him.
Christmas is not about the idea of family, but rather, about the most real family there is: God drawing us into the divine life of the Trinity, as adopted brothers and sisters of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the face of human loneliness and need, we can offer nothing ourselves. Let us remember that. But we can point to the Son of God, who took on a human body, rose in that same human body, and remains Incarnate, now and forever.
I cannot turn to Christ as an abstract idea, or a set of propositions. I can only turn to him as a Person. I encounter him when I read Scripture and know that, somehow, in the power of the Spirit, the words he speaks in Scripture are words to me, today. I encounter him in private prayer when, setting aside my awkwardness and embarrassment, I speak to him directly as one who knows me better than anyone else. I encounter him in the presence of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and especially when we pray together in his Name. Most deeply, I encounter him directly in the Eucharist, in the physical elements of the consecrated bread and wine. One day I will encounter him face to face.
And so, in the end, Christ is the only one who can bring all our needs together and meet them in himself. Christ himself, not merely as a symbol of Christmas festivity, not as a set of ideas about how we should live, but Christ encountered as the living Person who he is.
The shepherds and the Magi did not just acknowledge the idea of the Incarnate Lord; they came into his presence and knelt before him. They did not simply think good thoughts about him, but they honored the King of all creation by laying gifts before him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In this season of Advent, may we reflect on our own need, and look forward to the celebration of God’s gift to us, the gift of His Son – not an idea, but a Person. May we come to know him ever more fully and deeply, and may all that we do, and all that we say, and all that we are, point beyond ourselves to him, Our Lord Jesus Christ.