Too many good Christians feel at least slightly guilty about the “materialism” of Christmas. I believe this is a mistake. After all, God created all the stuff we exchange; God loved the stuff of the earth enough to become flesh in Jesus (which is, after all, what we’re celebrating), and Jesus obviously loved the human experiences of eating, drinking, and socializing enough that his enemies accused him (no doubt wrongly, but there must have been some basis for the charge) of being a “wine-bibber and a glutton, a friend to tax-collectors and sinners” [Mt 11:18]. I believe we Christians may well have a problem with materialism: but it’s that we don’t love material things nearly so wholeheartedly as we have a right to.
Maybe it would help if we were careful about the difference between possessing things and loving them. Most of us have an attic or garage that can testify to the mistakes we’ve made along the way: The tennis-racket or gardening tools or musical instruments or exercise machines that sit unused give evidence of things or activities we thought we’d love, but found we didn’t once we discovered that they required hard work. This is the problem with loving – things as well as people: Loving takes time and energy, and we humans have a limited amount of each. Things we own own us as much as we own them. If we don’t let them own a part of our time and energy, we’re not really respecting them as parts of God’s good creation. One of the early church fathers (I think it was Saint Gregory of Nyssa) said, “The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor”: If we aren’t loving what God gives us (because we don’t have the energy, time, or inclination), we really don’t have a right to possess it. But that shouldn’t make us guilty or even uncertain about having the things we do put effort into loving. No small part of the problem is that our culture confuses us: It leads us to believe that merely possessing things matters, that it will do something good for us. Ads encourage us to “be the sort of person who drives a BMW.” Well, BMW’s are wonderful machines, and deserve to be loved by the people who can truly love them; but I’d bet that most people who drive BMW’s don’t know how to drive them to near the level of performance they were designed for, and don’t care to put the time and effort into learning. To own a BMW (or anything else) just to be seen as owning it is to allow oneself to be fooled. Merely possessing distracts and burdens us; truly loving helps us to grow.
Because of the cultural message that mere possession is a good thing, most of us own too much stuff truly to love all of it. No wonder we’re pulled in so many directions, because stuff – being, after all, made by God as God’s good gifts – wants to be loved. We feel properly guilty about the unused camera equipment that sits in the closet. It evokes guilt not because it’s not good to have it, but exactly because it is good, and invites loving care which we – by inattention or because there are too many other demands on our time and energy – don’t give it. So let me suggest that we take this Christmas to delight in the good stuff God gives us – directly in nature, through the craft and care of others in manufactured items, and of course in the food and drink that symbolizes belonging and welcome around the Christmas table. When small children fall in love with a gift (and it’s as liable to be the box or the wrapping as the gift itself, a good sign of the human capacity to delight in the goodness of all God’s creation), that’s an introduction to wholehearted loving that will serve them well in adulthood, when they’ll have to love people with care and passion. The key is to love things for what they are, not what they (we think) say about us as their owners. And to let the things we own discipline us into loving them well.
Take delight in the stuff of this Christmas as God’s good creation. And then choose what you truly do love, and cherish that. And after that, find ways to let others love what you may possess, but don’t have the energy to cherish. Give it away. Until next week, peace.