The Christmas season is, for me, one of the happiest times of the year, when the weight of daily life seems to lift. I realize, though, that not everyone experiences Christmas this way. One year, with Christmas approaching, I took a stroll through the mall dressed in my clerical clothes, to ask random strangers what the true meaning of Christmas was (yes, I really did this, no kidding). It shouldn’t be a surprise that, when ambushed by a roving priest, few people could say that the true meaning of Christmas was to celebrate the birth of Christ.
What was a surprise was to confront a shopping mall filled with tension and frustration. Faces of frazzled exhaustion pushed through the mall like they were carried along some unseen force, compelling them to keep shopping. For so many people, this IS the annual Christmas experience. Instead of Christmas being a moment when the weight of the world lifts, it is a moment when the world crushes down harder, compounding people’s burdens, sadness, and debt.
When did we lose the joy of Christmas? I think we lost the joy of Christmas when we tried to capture it. We, as a nation, started to tell ourselves that we could DO something to make Christmas more joyful. We thought that, if only Christmas had bigger and better presents, the day would be filled with even more happiness. So, little by little by little we began to build a prison for ourselves, a prison made of clothing and gadgets, books and DVD’s, advertisements and sales, computers and iProducts. Driven by advertisement-induced fear of disappointment, and our own search for that elusive Christmas joy, we run up the credit cards and shop, shop, shop.
I call it a prison because so many people are trapped in this cycle of consumerism, that they cannot think outside of it. By looking to material things for joy, we quickly become dependent on those material things, and consequently we become slaves to those who produce and sell them. Like cattle we are easily led into giant pens at the retail store, drawn by promises of low prices for the things we want in the hopes of finding new and unscratched happiness.
Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem to free us from this slavery. His birth, as a poor baby in a borrowed barn, whose only possessions were swaddling clothes and a father and mother, teaches us what is important, and points the focus of our life beyond the low prices and the cattle pens, beyond the horizon of this world, towards the happiness that comes from God. It is no surprise that HIS birthday has become the most commercialized, literally drowning in a great tide of things, exactly because of what His birth means. This little poor baby, by bringing us God’s love, brings us face to face with the genuine and lasting happiness we are looking for, and so He is a threat to the whole establishment that is trying to sell us the latest models of imitation happiness.
We need to realize that with all the best technology that deficit spending can buy, we cannot make ourselves happy, and the harder we try the more unhappy we become. We need to go to the poor little Jesus as the shepherds did, recognizing that in our midst, sent free of charge as a gift from our generous God, is the one whose presence brings the peace and joy we have been trying so hard to find.
A blessed Christmas to you all.
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