Extravagant Christmas

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God gives good and perfect gifts. Do we?

By David Faber

What has gone wrong with Christmas? For many, instead of being a time of joyful celebration, the Christmas season has become a time of stress, disappointment and debt. Has our consumer culture stripped Christmas of its true meaning? Are the answers as simple as cutting back and spending less time and money on decorating the house and yard, travel, parties and shopping for and wrapping gifts? If we simplify our celebration will we be better followers of Jesus?

The problem with Christmas is not that some people say “Season’s greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.” The problem is deeper than that. Simply put—in fact, maybe too simply—our celebration of Christmas has been corrupted by sin.

Perhaps this answer will be a bit more helpful if we note one aspect of the nature of sin. In Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., notes that, “Sin is a parasite, an uninvited guest that keeps tapping its host for sustenance.” That is, sin acquires its attractiveness and vitality by latching onto the good that is present in something and then deceiving us.

So, what is the good in our celebration of Christmas off of which sin feeds and thereby corrupts? I suggest it is the good of genuine, extravagant gifts. God is the giver of genuine gifts, and God is extravagant as a giver. As the book of James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).

           

Defining a genuine gift

Let’s unpack what we mean by a genuine gift. A genuine gift is one that the giver has no obligation to provide. If there is an obligation for one person to provide another with something, then we have a negotiation or a bargain of some sort. When something good is provided freely without any reciprocal expectation, then something is a genuine gift.

It is not bad to have exchanges that involve obligations to both parties. That is what good, honest work is, after all. I, the employee, offer you, the employer, my labor in exchange for appropriate wages. Employment is a good thing, but it does not involve gift giving.

 And God is an extravagant giver. The creation itself—in all of its vast variety and mystery—is a gift. God was not obligated to create; there was not something missing from the life of the triune God that could only be filled by the act of creation. Creation comes from the overflowing of God’s love.

Similarly, God did not have to redeem rebellious humanity. The choice to offer healing to the damaged creation was an act of love, not of necessity. Part of its extravagance is the profound suffering that God endured to provide this gift. And God promises a new heaven and a new earth that are characterized by extravagant beauty.

Of course, extravagance is relative to one’s resources. God has no limitations and so God’s extravagance is infinite. One need not have large amounts of resources in order to be extravagant. And extravagance should not be taken as license to be irresponsible. But neither should the corruption of the celebration of Christmas be an excuse not to imitate God in our extravagant gift-giving.

The error of our hyper-consumerism does not lie in its extravagance. And it will not be fixed by simply giving less.

 

The role of giver, receiver

The problem with the way much of our culture and many of us celebrate Christmas is that we have distorted—indeed, virtually reversed—the role of giver and receiver in the exchange that we call gift giving. In genuine giving, the giver—based on love of and understanding of the receiver—uses the gift to bring delight, wholeness and life to the receiver. And the receiver accepts the gift with an attitude of wonder as to why this gift was chosen.

In false giving, the giver uses the gift to try to make the receiver like the giver, and the receiver expects the gift to be something that she desires. In genuine giving, both giver and receiver are focused on the other; in false giving, both giver and receiver are focused on themselves.

Consider this situation described recently in an advice column in our daily newspaper. A young woman received a crystal paperweight in the shape of a heart as a gift from her mother. Her response upon opening the gift was, “This is so not me.” She wrote that she and her husband are not “keepsake” people. After some negotiating about exchanging the gift for something else, the mother emailed her daughter that she could exchange it for another paperweight or send it back and it would not be replaced. “My feelings are already a bit bruised either way,” the mother wrote her daughter.

If this young woman had been thinking about her mother instead of herself, she might have thought: “My mother knows me well, and she knows that I don’t generally buy this kind of thing. I wonder why she wanted me to have this? What is she seeing that I am missing?”

Similarly, the cultural—as opposed to the historical—understanding of Santa Claus provides a nice example of false giving. Santa Claus knows a little bit about you, enough to know whether you are nice enough to receive gifts. But he doesn’t really know us very well. So, we have to provide him a list of what we want, and he will fulfill that list. Santa Claus’s gift giving is not based on his intimate knowledge of us and his desire for us to flourish. So, he just asks us what we want.

 

A Santa Claus God?

Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf writes in Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, “What is the difference between a Santa Claus God and a gift-giving God? The bare bones answer is this: A Santa Claus God gives so we can have and enjoy things; the true God gives so we can become joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers.”

It is fitting that Thanksgiving and Christmas are so close to one another on the calendar. It is even more fitting that Thankgiving lies at the end of the church calendar and Christmas at the beginning. The end of a year is typically a time of reflection, of looking back. Gratitude is a backward looking emotion. We can look back at the gifts given us by our extravagant God and ask, “What did God see in us that he provided these gifts?”

The season of Advent looks forward to the new year, to a gift given to all humanity. To echo Volf’s idea, we can ask ourselves, “How can we use the gifts from God to become extravagant, joyful givers ourselves?” We don’t free ourselves from the tyranny of a consumerist culture by giving less; we free ourselves by giving and receiving in a more genuine way.

David Faber is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren school headquartered in Hillsboro, Kan. He is a member of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro.

 

 

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