Can consumer people be Christmas people?
Christmastime on the planet of the rich is a world of consumption. In fact, what we realize around this time of the year is that we have a lot of stuff — so much stuff that many people donate to charity (as tax write-offs) or simply opt out of giving gifts.
Our planet of the rich is a planet of material things. Since we can now buy everything whenever we want at the touch of a button or the swipe of a card, gifts become a nuisance for some people. A frequent response to the question, "What would you like for Christmas?" is, "Don't get me anything. I already have too much stuff" or, "Please don't buy me anything, I don't need anything." (Who said Christmas was about "need"?)
What seems most apparent in our consumer culture is the spirit of self-sufficiency: Thank you for your offer, but I have too much stuff; I will buy it when I need it; I give my stuff away when I want to. Christmas on the planet of the rich is consumerism run wild, resulting in either mass hysteria of unmet needs and desires or absolute control of the flow of goods. Is it possible to really celebrate Christmas in a consumer culture?
Christmastime means gathering around the birth of Jesus, the unfathomable mystery of God's self-gift. As Christians, we believe that God gives Godself to us wholly, completely, absolutely and without reserve in the birth of an infant: a tiny, poor, humble, Jewish baby born in the squalor of a stable with a birth announcement given to shepherds by angels saying: "Here lies the Most High. This is God, and God is like this, not greater or more glorious or more powerful than this tiny, poor, helpless infant." The gift of divinity is hidden in humanity, and there is no return policy.
The philosopher Jean-Luc Marion wrote a book a number of years ago called God Without Being in which he plumbed the mystery of God as the gift of being itself. Marion recognized that God does not give gifts: God is gift, and the gift of God is hidden in the concrete reality of existence, the everydayness of form and beauty: the human face, the tiny babe, kittens and rabbits, trees and fawns, tiny ants and stars. Everything that exists bears an excess of gift, flowing from the heart of divine love, revealed in the depth and beauty of each and everything.
St. Francis of Assisi had a deep sense of the gift of God in creation. Everything spoke to him of God — flowers, trees, rabbits, earthworms, even his difficult brothers revealed the gift of God's love. Francis did not go around saying, "Oh, thanks, but I have enough flowers" or, "Please do not send any more fruit because everyone keeps sending me fruit and I have too much." Rather, his first words were, "Thank you."
He was not so much interested in material things but the gift symbolized by the material good. A gift is something freely given, a personal expression of love flowing from one person to another, symbolizing a bond of unity or belonging together. Francis received graciously from others because each gift was, in a sense, given by God, whether the gift was a mountain, a palace, a small donkey, a loaf of bread or a smile. For him, the gift expressed the giver. The gift itself was not so important as was the giver of the gift because each gift freely given is a gift of God.
A gift graciously received creates a shared life, a sacrum commercium or sacred exchange between divinity and humanity, and thus a bond of unity. Every gift given and graciously received is an act of creating a new future together. Because he encountered the manifold gifts of God in the everyday experiences of life, Francis lived with a deep sense of gratitude. He began each new day with the simple words, "Thank you." Life in God is about living in the gift of life, and to receive graciously is to live in the flow of life abundant.
Of course, the greatest gift for Francis was the gift of Jesus Christ. One of the most profound episodes in his life is the Christmas scene at Greccio in the year 1223, three years before his death.
Francis wanted to set before his bodily eyes the inconveniences of the infant, "how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed."
After describing the preparations, Thomas of Celano wrote: "The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem."
However, the Christmas scene contained no statues or players representing Joseph, Mary or the child. It was not merely a drama, but a re-enactment of the divine drama. Francis was convinced of the reality of the descent of the Word, divinity bending low to assume our fragile humanity. He arranged to have a Mass celebrated over the manger and preached on the Christmas Gospel. He sought to connect the nativity scene with the present "incarnation" of the Lord as Word and Sacrament. Christmas is Eucharist, and Christians are to be Christmas people.
The key to Christmas for St. Francis is poverty. The Incarnation is the movement of God to poverty, to indigence and dependence on others, thus revealing the divine good throughout creation — even in people we do not like.
Scholars have known for a long time that Francis of Assisi rarely spoke of poverty in terms of material things. His poverty was not about want or need; it was about dispossession. The poor person is not one who lives without things but without possessing things. The one who possesses cannot receive because one is constantly clinging in a way that grasps and controls.
Francis made every effort to live materially poor so that he could live spiritually poor. Material poverty was not an end in itself, but a means to living in radical dependence on God and thus on one another, since God lives in our neighbors, our family members, community members and the people we meet on the street or in the mall.
What Francis sought to do is to live — not without things, but without grasping and clinging to things. When every aspect of life is gift, including our material goods, we live with a sense of gratitude. Whether we purchase the item ourselves or receive it from another, it is a gift freely given in the moment to use, to share, to reflect the goodness of human work.
To live sine proprio (without possessing) is to have an inner space of freedom where we can receive from the other without trying to control or manipulate the other, for this is how God comes to us, in the hiddenness of the other.
Etty Hillesum came to a similar insight in her concentration camp cell when she wrote on July 12, 1942: "But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves . . . that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. . . . You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last." Etty Hillesum, like Francis of Assisi, lived in the gift of life. They were Christmas people.
Can a consumer world really celebrate Christmas? Is it possible to receive the manifold gifts of God when we reject or seek to control the gift of the other? The simple answer is no. Consumer Christmas turns the personal gifts of divine love into commodified goods. On one hand, Christmas is a wonderful time for family gatherings, renewed friendships and tokens of gratitude, all of which reflect the deep relational nature of being itself. We love to be loved, to be needed, recognized, singled-out, but it is an illusion to think we are in control or that we can control gifts by either receiving or rejecting them.
As long as we condone a culture of possession, we reject the Incarnation of God. We may celebrate consumer Christmas, but we are not Christmas people. For the person who possesses and controls cannot receive, and the person who cannot receive cannot give thanks.
Christmastime should be an awakening of consciousness that all is a gift freely given and that our task is to receive in poverty of spirit and give thanks. The lowliness of Christ's birth shows us where the gift of divinity is to be found: in the poor, the humble, the forgotten, the weak, the simple, the laborer, the immigrant, the unwed, the old, the dumb ox and smelly sheep.
The Most High God whose incomprehensible love cannot be purchased or downloaded bends low to embrace us in our frail humanity so that we might be raised up into the heart of divinity. Francis knew by the end of his life that all is a gift. Even his sufferings and physical ailments were gifts given by a God of generous love. Only by way of suffering can love be refined, as iron is molded in fire.
The frivolity of consumer Christmas on the planet of the rich is an illusion that cannot last. We may "shop until we drop" or refuse to exchange gifts because we have no need for more stuff, but we are missing out on the significance of Christmas itself: The gift of life is freely given and graciously received. Everything is a gift; every drop of water and grain of sand, every card sent or candy exchanged. Christmas is not doing for others; rather, it is being done unto. This is the heart of Mary's fiat: "Be it done unto me according to your word."
We don't call the shots; we receive the grace of divine love that empowers us to do new things, to give birth to new life. It takes a wide inner space of poverty and dispossessiveness for the seeds of new life to be planted.
A spirit of consumption can only lead to death. By consuming one another and the things of the Earth, the natural resources of oil, water, air, wind, soil, we continue to take in to the point of being bloated, unhealthy and diseased. We are living in the illusion of self-sufficiency where even the best of us can feel self-righteous. But what has been freely given can be freely taken away. Our God is a jealous God whose overflowing generosity cannot be outsmarted or stripped by Google or Amazon. One has only to think of the story of Job to realize this reality.
We are facing a precarious future ahead because we are enslaved by consumption. The only possible outcome for a consumptive Earth, where the U.S. footprint is 23 percent larger than what the Earth can regenerate, is a great suffering. It will come, and we will not know the day nor the hour. But this great suffering will be a great gift because we will once again receive graciously from one another without demands or constraints. Then we will live in the true spirit of Christmas.
[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe. Her newest book is Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015).]