“What to give someone who has everything?” It’s the annual pre-Christmas dilemma. And the annual post-Christmas dilemma corresponds to it: “Where can I put this thoughtful present?”
These two questions sum up the annual disconnect between holiday frenzy and the simple clarity of Jesus’ birth, with its all-inclusive gift of grace to a spiritually impoverished, materially overstuffed world.
In his little book Hundred Dollar Holiday, Bill McKibben quotes one woman’s response to a program of song, stories, and advocacy for a commercially simpler, more personally meaningful Christmas: “Thank you for giving me permission to celebrate Christmas the way I’ve always wanted to.” McKibben comments, “The message from the pulpit allowed her to stand up to the pressures of the advertisers, of the glossy magazines with their endless decorating tips—to stand up to the voice that had been planted in the back of her head that told her what Christmas should be” (p. 13).
After recounting the surprising particulars of the rise of Christmas gift-giving in the nineteenth century, McKibben points out that today’s social situation is very different from that when Christmas gift giving first arose. Back then, small gifts provided novelty, wonder, and excitement. But now we are oversaturated with material things. Our closets, garages, and rental storage units overflow. More stuff rarely delights us. This reality — on top of consumer debt, wasted natural resources, and inevitable landfills of throwaways — amounts to a need to reclaim Christmas as a joyful, graceful celebration focused not on things but relationships.
During Advent, Christians are often divided. We want to do right by Christmas. We hear the message of advent expectancy. We want depth. We want quiet. We want like Mary to treasure and ponder the Christmas story in our hearts. We know there is little relationship between “Silent Night, Holy Night” and the frenzy of parties, decorations, and frenetic shopping in search of the best Christmas ever.
Yet we (women especially) don’t want to appear stingy or risk disappointing those we love. We want others to know we care. So we stretch our margins, attempting to put on a bang-up Christmas for others. Especially with the intense pressure from a well-oiled, high-octane advertising industry, we need encouragement to reflect on Jesus’ words, “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:23).
Pastors can begin early in the season to address the disconnect between runaway holiday traditions and our real spiritual needs. The reasons to address this are not simply the church’s prior claim to a Christ-centered Christmas, but the economic injustices that are heightened by Christmas extravaganzas, the severe environmental impact of wasted resources, and the hunger in our souls that is left still unsatisfied by tinsel and trinkets.
We have every reason for an ecologically rich theology of Advent and Christmas: This is the season we celebrate that “God so loved the world.” The Greek word in John 3:16 for “world” is not just oikoumene, the human world, but kosmos — the whole universe. This December’s lectionary readings don’t offer many clear environmental themes, but here are a few suggestions:
- The epistles for all five Sundays reflect overwhelming joy and gratitude. They may indeed offer a splendid series of meditations on the spirit of Christmas. In 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Philippians 1:3-11, Paul expresses his own grateful support for those two Christian communities, modeling the valuing of persons over wealth. In Philippians 4:4-7 he likewise invites his audience into carefree joy and peace. In Hebrews 10:5-10 the author prizes Jesus’ self-giving over the giving of material sacrifices. In Colossians 3:12-17 we hear further praise of joy and gratitude.
- The gospel readings from Luke each employ an element of the natural world in their message. Luke 21:25-36 takes a lesson from observing the spring’s leaf buds, a phenomenon few today take thought to examine right outside our doors. Luke 3:1-6 depicts John the Baptist preaching in the desert. In his message in Luke 3:7-18, John challenges his hearers, like healthy trees, to bear worthy fruits. Luke 1:39-45 celebrates the “fruit” of Mary’s womb.
- The Psalms on Christmas Day offer opportunities to reflect on the kosmos’s participation in the incarnation. All are filled with calls to praise God’s role as creator and ruler. These calls extend to all creation: the earth rejoices, the sea roars, and trees joyfully shout (Psalm 96). The coastlands are glad (Psalm 97). The floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy (Psalm 98). Isaiah 52:7-10, which accompanies Psalm 98, echoes its language, with Jerusalem’s ruins singing praise and all the earth’s ends seeing God’s salvation.
- Psalm 148, on the first Sunday after Christmas, offers a joyful catalog of praise with which to recalibrate the New Year. It calls all creation to praise God, starting in the heavens with angels, sun, moon, stars, and sky, then descending to earth to call sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, wind, mountains, fruit trees, wild animals, cattle, birds, and finally humans, men and women, young and old, to join in the worldwide chorus of praise.
Patricia Tull’s monthly column suggests ways to bring God’s creation into your preaching, drawing on the coming month’s lectionary texts. Her hope is that creation in all its splendor — “the great community” — will be remembered in preaching and worship not just occasionally, but throughout the year.