Well, it's that time of year again. Time for us to be once again bombarded by advertisements tricked out in tinsel, offering layaway programs, special "deals" if you come into the store at the ass-crack of dawn, and various Christmas carols cunningly recalibrated into musical mantras for what Christmas is REALLY about in America . . . money. Mammon. You know, that thing that Jesus said you couldn't serve if you served God? I know some of you remember this. Maybe it's a good time of year to take a step back and see just how much we pay lip-service to this creed while many of us are sitting in the amen pew of Mammon's unholy cathedral.
First of all, i don't think there's any problem in giving gifts on Christmas. Especially since, the rest of the year, we're a bunch of penny-pinching cheapskates. Do you really need an excuse to give? Has generosity become so archaic that we're only going to honor it once a year, because it might be embarrassing if people did it all year long? And, of course, TRUE generosity doesn't earn dividends or turn a profit, so it's pretty much useless to your generic WASP suburbian family (it's one of the family values that gets skipped over by the pundits when they're pounding the pulpits to push their particular propaganda). Now, if you're reading this, and your hackles are raising, or you're squirming around a little in your seat, GOOD. I'm about to tell you exactly what is putting the "X" in "Xmas." And it's us.
Christmas, at least in theory, comes from the words "Christ's Mass." We can be relatively sure that Christ wasn't actually born in December . . . the time of year was chosen to coincide with certain pagan rituals (the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, etc.); theoretically, this was to make it easier for pagans to "transition" into Christian practices (what it produced instead, in many cases, was a synchretism that blended a lot of traditions). Nonetheless, if you're going to celebrate Christ's Mass, celebrate it to Christ's glory! That means, of course, to be more concerned about others, so when you're giving gifts, don't just run out and buy something that the person is apt to exchange as soon as you're out of the house . . . put some thought into the gift! Remember, Christ taught us to figure out what we would want someone else to do for us, and then take the initiative by doing it for them! And don't be overly concerned with the "dollar value" of the gift, whether you're giving it or receiving it. Nothing is uglier than a person receiving a gift who later complains about how "cheap" the giver was.
Putting this back in a contemporary perspective, and having worked in retail sails for the previous 6 Christmas seasons, i'm well aware of the over-eager nature of the sellers to "push" Christmas merchandise. Some of the merchandise will even brandish the appropriate religious references (anything that will convince more people to buy it). This attitude, and everything that participates in it and supports it, is almost a ritual honoring Mammon. I'm reminded of the terrible "accident" not so long ago when a man was trampled to death by a horde of shoppers in Wal-Mart. It was an ugly, hideous thing . . . did not one person in the mass know that they were stepping on a living human? Or was getting inside to get those early-riser deals more important than stopping to help, or at least trying to stem the lemming-like tidal wave? I can hear some of you saying, "Yeah, but if they stopped, they'd have been trampled, too." SO WHAT? Listen, if we're saying that we're Christians (those of you who aren't Christians are excused from this part of the rant, if you haven't already tuned me out), then a Christ-like action in that scenario would be . . .WHAT? Christ, who sacrificed His life for ALL of us, would surely have risked His life to help that man. Surely, there must have been SOME Christians in that herd!
This could be broadened into an indictment of our culture's approach to money in general. Sorry, W. Bush, a bailout for banks and automakers at the taxpayers' expense isn't the answer. Neither is a "stimulus program" loaded down with pork projects, Mr. Obama. MORE MONEY IS NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION . . . and you know what THAT means. On Wall St., there is a bronze image of a rampaging bull, supposedly to represent the "Bull Market" that everyone craves. But, i look at it, and i see the golden calf that the Hebrews made while Moses was up on the mountaintop. THAT is what is being worshipped. Everybody likes money, right? More money means more THINGS, more access, more votes, more bulwarks and barriers to keep the "wrong kind of people" outside. I am currently unemployed . . . not for lack of trying, but right now, the job market is tumbling . . . the "stimulus program" doesn't seem to be helping much in that response. Obama's meeting with a number of industry leaders to "create new jobs" was a joke considering how many of them had been cutting jobs before. You create a horrifying chasm doing this . . . making a bigger lower class, while somehow expecting these people to support an economy that sucks them dry and then demands more. When you look at the disparity of this circumstance, it's a wonder you don't fall down on your knees and pray for mercy, because generating a larger group of "outsiders," of people who are oppressed (and, yes, economic oppression counts) is certainly not going to please God. I'm sure a lot of you tithe 10% . . . and keep a careful record of it so you can get the tax write-off. Is this the future you want to hand to your kids? An enormous tax burden to pay for the mistakes of super-wealthy people who, for the most part, STILL ENJOY THE BENEFITS OF THEIR WEALTH? We teach our kids by example . . . and everything seems to be telling them "More MONEY is the answer to your woes. More MONEY is better STATUS, and therefore you're less likely to get convincted of crimes . . . if you have MONEY, you can get away with ANYTHING. You don't want a job that makes you happy, you want a job that gets you more MONEY, and if you have to swindle, backstab, or mistreat your co-workers and employees to do it, SO BE IT." I don't see any politicians on EITHER side of the whole Coke-vs-Pepsi political stratum volunteering to take pay cuts, to not use limousine services, to brown-bag lunch instead of having a 3-martini-lunch with their cronies . . . perish the thought!
If you're a Christian, don't expect a financial payoff because of it. Don't expect the World to be your friend . . . Mammon has no friends, just people it can use, and people it can't . . . and if you're of the latter, you're going to run into all kinds of trouble. Someday in the not-too-distant future, you may be found guilty of "not supporting the economy"--they'll make that a crime about the time they start implanting those microchips in the backs of your hands or under the skin of your foreheads. You're going to have to sacrifice some things, make do with less, and if you follow Christ's teaching in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, use the adversity to stimulate you to creative survival. When you step out of the rat race long enough to take a deep breath and a good look, you'll be thankful for the grace that allows that transition. You won't be a "respectable citizen," you won't be spending your days in "conspicuous consumption," and you're probably going to have a lot of people scratching their heads, wondering why you don't play the game . . . but you'll be LIVING, REALLY LIVING . . . not just complacently getting along because (at least for now) it's easy to claim you're a Christian in America, going to church in what's basically a stained-glass social club, insisting on God's name in the pledge, and going along with whatever political agenda has replaced Faith in your life. If you think that there's a political solution, then THAT'S the problem! When your Faith is in Christ, and you apply your God-given critical intelligence to the situation, you'll see how out-of-joint the whole mess is.
My family has a great many "traditions" that go along with the Christmas season. Christmas cookies, mulled cider, decorating the house, and having other family members who would otherwise be alone join us. My parents were always consistent with regards to remembering Whose birth we were celebrating, and teaching us accordingly. Most of my memories of Christmas are warm and pleasant, and i remember being as young as 11 when i realized i anticipated the joy or happiness that resulted from the gifts i gave rather than what i received.
It made me realize that giving was a blessing in and of itself . . . having something to give, to give FROM, and experiencing the happiness in somebody else's eyes. And, yeah, that might sound sappy and sentimental, but if a cynical curmudgeon like me can feel that, maybe you should try it on for size this Christmas. Maybe a whole bunch of Grinches will be getting bigger hearts this year when they realize the TRUE meaning of Christmas . . . hey, i can dream, can't i?
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