It has become a commonplace to criticise our modern approach to Christmas as materialistic and worldly and lacking in the true meaning of what the nativity of Jesus is all about. I’ve done it myself (see below!) Yet the Gospels tell us that, at the birth of Jesus, three wise men brought gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, three of the most expensive and exclusive items of the day. These are usually explained in profoundly spiritual terms as symbolic representations of spiritual principles and ideals.
Well, no more! I’ve decided that materialism at Christmas is ok. Actually, it’s necessary. Feasting, drinking, wassailing are an essential part of the Christmas experience, and anyone who doesn’t like it can remonstrate as much as they like; bah humbug to Scrooge (pre-ghosts!), Oliver Cromwell and his puritans, and the rest. The materialism of Christmas is the material with which we clothe our lives, and here’s why…
Christmas falls at around the time of the winter solstice, and both represent symbolically death and rebirth, of the sun in pagan culture, of the birth of Jesus in the Christian. I’ve commented on this in a previous entry here (see below). Feasting at this time of year is an ancient tradition. Meat was plentiful, because cattle were slaughtered to preserve fodder, and everyone knew that the most difficult days of winter were to come. The feast was a way of expressing faith in God (or the gods) that the time of plenty would return, the sun (or Son!) would rise again and that all would be well. Feasting was an act of faith!
As for giving gifts, that was not an essential part of the pre-Christian tradition, but for Christmas, remember those three wise men? Their gifts were worldly and indulgent. Of course they were! This was no ordinary child, He was the hope of humanity, the anointed one who was born to bind together heaven and earth, to hold the connection between all souls incarnate and the Divine.
Later in the story, the apostles question Jesus and rebuke Mary Magdalene when she anoints his feet with expensive perfume – He tells them she has done “a beautiful thing”. Indeed in Luke He even forgives her sins for performing such a kind act! Did the wise men teach the infant Jesus to be materialistic?
Perhaps they did. Could that first lesson in life have been that even in the midst of poverty – He was born in a barn after all! – generosity and kindness, giving and receiving gifts, are just as important as meditation and contemplation? Could it be that feasting and wassailing are as important as prayer?
In the Jewish tradition, about two weeks after Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, comes the festival of Simchat Torah (literally “Rejoicing in the Law”) and I have fond childhood memories of the men in the synagogue processing with the Sefer Torah and dropping sweets in our hands as they passed us children. I must be getting old and sentimental because I now weep at the memory! I experienced at that early age joy in God through a material act of giving!
What I look forward to most at Christmas is giving presents to children, and to feasting with those I love. This mundane act of giving is about showing: we trust that plenty is our birth right; that God will always provide; that we have the means to celebrate life even in the midst of death; that we can trust in the Light, even during times of darkness; that hope is knowing God is with us ALWAYS!
The wise men of the nativity bring hope and prosperity, even to an infant in a manger, so the child can learn that in times of material hardship we are loved and protected by The Holy One. Central to the Christmas celebration is the expression of that hope, an invitation to experience prosperity consciousness through acts of joy and celebration.
None of us knows what our material life span will be. Not even Jesus knew, only that He would be called upon to give up His life – death was a choice He made, as God’s anointed, to fulfil His destiny and His karma.
We are all born to be God’s anointed, whether we know it or not. We may not be chosen yet, or know what our particular destiny will be, but we prepare for it. This season, whether Christian, pagan or Jew, is about that very hope – that each of us in our turn will be prepared when called upon to pass through the eye of the needle and carry humanity with us; to give ourselves to the unfolding act of creation, the greatest gift of all. The Eternal One is with me always, and I am always with The Eternal One. May the spirit and material of Christmas help you to come closer to the Christ within you.