by Candice Watters
Q: I’ve been a believer in Christ most of my life, and I know that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but every year I feel like that head knowledge has a hard time getting to my heart.
I’m so distracted and busy in December. I love to buy gifts for people, and watching all the websites of my favorite stores for good deals is like a game that I can’t stop playing. Just when I think I’m done shopping, when I have something for everyone on my list, my inbox chimes with new offers, and I start finding reasons that I should keep buying.
Is it wrong to buy presents at Christmas? Am I taking away from the spiritual meaning of the holiday by doing all the same things that my unbelieving neighbors do? How do I keep Christ at the center with so many distractions? Is it even possible to have a Christian Christmas anymore?
A: I can relate to this question! It seems like every year the marketers of all things Christmas get smarter at gamifying the buying and celebrating of what used to be a fairly simple and primarily religious holiday. I’ve never played Candy Crush, the highly addictive mobile app that rewards you for every move but keeps you in suspense with mandatory waiting periods between levels, but it’s easy to imagine the rush. I feel it every time I open my Gmail and see a new post-Black-Friday offer. But that’s not all I feel. I also feel guilt and not a little conviction over my excitement about bayberry candles, a pair of boots, or bottle of moisturizer. Because in reality, not all those gift purchases are for other people. That’s how the marketers want it. “You’re working so hard to bring glad tidings to everyone else,” they tell us, “why not buy a little comfort and joy for yourself? You’ve earned it!”
Can you hear it? It’s the call to consume.
I hear it loud and strong. I can relate to this question, because, in truth, it is my question. This year I’ve been struck again by the tension of wanting to have a meaningful Christmas season, while feeling affected by the pull of materialism. I suspect I’m not the only one feeling torn between my desire to glorify Christ and my desire to give and have new stuff. Is it possible to overcome the consumerism that not only surrounds us, but originates in our own hearts? What should we do?
My first inclination is to overreact, to utterly reimagine the way we do Christmas: Save the presents till February? No more tree? A gluten-free December? Last year about this time I read Kevin DeYoung’s blog post, “Christian Christmas Grinches,” and he talked me down from the moralizing ledge. He said,
As Christians, we have more to celebrate than anyone. We don’t need to lock up Donner and Blitzen to show that Christ is preeminent. Just like Lewis didn’t have to shut out Father Christmas from Narnia to make Aslan great.… There is a time for fasting in the Christian life and a time for feasting. The Old Testament teaches us that. And so does Jesus. If Western Christianity is selfish and bloated, let us be the first to say so and the first to show a more excellent way. But let us be the last to use the occasion of the incarnation for moral preening. If the disciples were to rejoice when the Bridegroom was with them, surely we can do better than to be outraged sourpusses every year when we commemorate his coming.
DeYoung reminded me of something that I love about holidays: It’s good to celebrate! For many years after Steve and I were married, we’d kick off the Christmas season by pulling out a sermon we heard in 1996 and listen to our then-pastor talk about the importance of “eating of the fat.” He was referring to the Jews who had recently returned home to Jerusalem from captivity. They were in a state of mourning, having just heard the reading of the law. They knew how far they’d fallen. Nehemiah encouraged them, saying,
“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them (Nehemiah 9b-12).
The problem isn’t celebrating. Celebration accompanies rejoicing; celebrating is part of rest and restoration and marking milestones and making sweet memories with our loved ones. The problem is what passes for celebration in our culture. We weary ourselves with preparations, take on credit card debt, eat too much sugar, drink too much nog, curse the makers of tangled lights, and call it celebration—but it’s not.
The things that replenish, that last in our memories, and make life meaningful require that we settle for less than Pinterest-perfect decorations and cookies. True celebration is about being in the moment with the people in your life; about resisting distractions and lowering expectations of how much you can buy and do in one month and how perfect everything should be. But more than anything, it’s about staying focused on what we’re celebrating and asking God for the wisdom and ability to be transformed by the One we’re celebrating.
We can keep this focus by celebrating Advent; setting aside time each day, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, to read the prophecies and promises in the Old Testament, along with their fulfillment in the New. It’s an intentional focus on baby Jesus in the manger. That’s where it starts. But it doesn’t end there. The reason Advent is so magnificent, and holds such power for transforming our Christmas celebration, is that it anticipates all of why Christ came — He was born to die. Observing Advent gives clarity and purpose to the Christmassy things we do, even as it transcends them, changing us in the process.
When what’s most exciting about Christmas is new stuff, I know I have a spiritual problem, and that requires a spiritual solution. I need to remind myself of my greatest need. It’s not a mini-iPad, new camera, kitchen remodel, or any other thing I can buy with money. My greatest need is forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And in Christ, my need is met.
Meditating on God’s goodness, kindness, and mercy, and Jesus’ love, sacrifice, and victory must be my daily practice if I’m to overcome the pull of the world. It’s that strong. And I’m that weak. But in Christ, nothing is impossible. He tells us “apart from me you can do nothing.” Nothing. That’s a good word to start each morning. But don’t stop there. Keep going in Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” I can obey God’s commands not to be anxious, to trust Him for my needs, to receive what He gives as good and sufficient, and to be content whether I have much or little.
As we enjoy the wonder of this time of year, may we treasure Christ above all.
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