I have been feeling a bit uninspired and even (here’s a confession) judgemental as Christmas approaches and all I hear is a whole lot of consumerist drama about presents and food and decorations and which unpleasant relative people are going to half kill themselves in order to please (all while matching the napkins to the baubles and making glittery centrepieces). I wonder that people who usually come across as sensitive and thoughtful suddenly seem to bury themselves in consumerism and stress and as a result some of them (the active ones who have to do all the work) wind up snapping “I hate Christmas”, while the ones who have a high emotional investment in “receiving” a perfect Christmas- gifts, invitations also end up disappointed as the reality can never match the expectation brought to us by that ”John the Baptist” equivalent of the consumerist religion, Santa.
Someone is going to argue with me that “Santa” is actually a Christian figure being based on St Nicholas but when I look at the North pole dwelling, red, no longer unfashionably plump, ruling class business owner and exploiter of elves and reindeer and his hiding in the shadows (making cookies of course), “Mrs Claus” I say “bollocks”. This myth may indeed have come out of an appropriation of a Christian story but it has morphed so far I think it is even too late for reclaiming. Is noone apart from me uncomfortable with the Christmas pageants where this older (and often depicted as married) man has a sleazy relationship with teenaged beauty queens and Christmas fairies? This is not a version of Christianity I want to subscribe to, nor is the meritocratic lie that the children who get lavish presents are the “good” ones, and the ones with unemployed parents have done something wrong and deserve less. There is a popular movement for parents to “cut down” the number of presents they buy each of their children to FOUR. FOUR?? I only ever bought each child one (and maybe snuck in a book as well because I am naughty that way).
So I have been feeling anger and despair about Christmas, and I don’t like to admit this but I better- I have been looking down on people who think these things are so important- all the presents and hideous decorations and having the right fashionable foods (and too much of them). I have been reading Vandana Shiva (another “john the Baptist” figure but more to my taste) and agreeing that we privileged first-worlders use up the planet for empty crap, we don’t even get enough satisfaction to be worth the plunder and we are unhealthy as anything because of our over-consumption.
But I have survived this year, in a job that has some joyful moments on even the bad days, with one entire day nearly every week that I can devote to my favourite activity in the world of writing and I live with the most thoughtful young person in the universe who alternates getting me a coffee or a hug with his witty humour and undemanding habits. And if I find meaning in quiet times with him (no work for two weeks) and sunsetty evenings at the beach in the wet sand and the chatter of rainbow lorikeets and the company of the same friends who have supported and challenged me all year, and family members who do their best to tolerate me…then it is time to stop and examine my own privilege.
Because not so many years ago there was an impoverished, struggling single mother who felt cut off from relatives and other people alike- who saw judgement and rejection everywhere (even where it wasn’t) and who suffered through grey day after grey day under a burden of anxiety and self-hate and her own inadequacy. I have to remember her, who I was for so many years. And that grey-day woman wanted a bit of colour in her life and used tinsel and fairylights and wrapping paper and cards to try to make some fleeting connection to the rest of the human race and bought too many gadgets and gizmos to try to brighten up the lives of the children who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in her life. And that wasn’t “right” and it didn’t completely “work” but it provided some sort of fleeting relief and that is what it does for all the people who get caught up in commodified Christmases as well as the dating-at-any-price mentality which I think it related: the idea that you can’t be happy unless you have a partner.
And sitting in the relative wealth of Australian society we DO need to look at our consumption and we all need to cut down on it- every household, every individual but especially industry and the military! And I don’t want to return to an uncritical “bread and circuses” attitude to Christmas, granting that the consumerism alleviates a little bit of an existential angst for many people and leaving it at that. The first reading expects more than that from us…we are to point ourselves toward the joy and beauty that God calls us to (which can’t be giftwrapped or sent out for). But in my judgemental attitude I have thought about how to “break their hearts of stone” and I haven’t considered that that is not what I need when I get trapped in escapism and patterns of despair.
How instead do we embrace their hearts and offer them a home? The baby John the Baptist in the canticle is not praised for his incisive criticisms and his rousing hellfire sermons (alas because I think I would make a fantastic old-school preacher). He is told he will prepare Jesus’ way through preaching the “forgiveness of sins” through the loving-kindness (is this hesed?) of God to break upon us like a new dawning. Like finding out that I was a rainbow, not a brokenness. So somehow if we are to accept the impossible mission of John the Baptist (and even here I am mindful of how he ended up once he irritated the ruling class enough), we are to bring peace and loving-kindness and light to the world, not simply threats and criticisms. Do I detect God laughing at me, because she knows how I love a good criticism!
In the second reading, “Paul” (I am never sure when it is the real Paul and when it isn’t but this guy thinks it is) is thanking God for some supportive person/s who have shared the gospel with him. And I think of the people who fill my heart with gratefulness and light whenever I even think of them, and some of them are believers in God, and some are not. But what they all have in common is that they came into my life in a “before” time, when I was more depressed and they have to some degree walked into my darkness to greet me and accept me and show me the light of love. The people who saw something in me before I was ready to see it myself have (cumulatively) changed my life! So if we want to convert the next Paul, or even if we just want a better society then the call is to be prophets of love and light to the world.
And now I am beginning to sound more Christmassy I think which is good because next week is the “joy” week and the drought of advent-waiting will need to be ready to be transformed to a more expectant state then.
So back to the gospel, to our old friend John the Baptist. As an environmentalist I feel horrified shivers at his metaphor, but as a teacher who is interest above all else in social justice I resound with the idea of equalising. Despite the capitalist wisdom of the day “a rising tide floats everyone’s boat” the fact is we live in a world of finite resources, and for one to increase, someone else must pay the price. So to prepare for God’s kingdom, we must raise the status of the poor and the refugee AT THE COST OF THE WEALTHY who need to be made lower. While I feel quite poor still, on a world wide scale I am one of the (smaller) hills that will need to be smoothed down to exalt the real valleys.Isn’t it tempting to water down the redistributive demand of God’s revolution here and to say that all God really wants us to do is be “nice” and “moral” and “caring” in a bland way that doesn’t offend anybody.
But no! God’s demanding Word asks for nothing less than a complete overhaul of our social landscape to smooth out mountains and valleys into equality. Yes that is hard, hard work! But that is what it will take to have God’s reign in our lives. We can’t achieve this purely as individuals, we can’t just make ourselves “good” and “holy” people inside there is a social project and a struggle implicit in bringing God. “All flesh” are to see this salvation together, not singly while leaving brothers and sisters to suffer outside the gate.
So that is the Christmas to prepare for, the radical challenge that God’s word always brings to the powers that be. Prepare to be offensive to the Herods and the Pilates of the world when Jesus comes- prepare to be no friend to the wealthy Pharisees and to be seen on a par with tax-collectors and prostitutes. The restitutive, redistributive world of God’s Holy Wisdom is going to make a few changes around here. And we get to be part of that!