Was your holiday everything you hoped it would be?
That may depend on whether you got a new laptop, a Wii, or that large screen TV you’ve been longing for… Its hard to imagine how Santa loaded all those electronics on his sleigh. I wonder what he really thinks when he’s reading those lists, and checking them twice.
But is that the true meaning of Christmas? How many Christians really celebrate the coming of the Messiah, does anyone still believe he’s going to intervene once again in human history? Aren’t most of us just waiting for Santa and his twelve reindeer? When I think about all that gift-giving frenzy that takes place during the holidays I can’t help but ask the question: if Christmas is really just about the presents under the tree, why bother with all that pretense about Jesus and the birth of the messiah? Hasn’t the Santa tradition won out?
Honestly, can you blame anyone? So many of the biblical stories told in preparation for the Christmas holiday are full of threats of punishment. For instance, in Luke 3:7-18 [link to text] John the Baptist warns the people not to run from the wrath to come:
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The Greek word Luke uses for wrath is ὀργή or orgē [link]. It means anger, violent emotion, anger demonstrated in punishment. John’s use of the word “wrath” gives the people such a fright they immediately ask him what they need do to save themselves. He replies by offering the following instructions:
First to the crowd in general, he says,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Then to the tax-collectors:
“Collect no more than the amount prescribed you.”
And finally to soldiers:
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
In all four gospels John the Baptist announces the coming of the Messiah who will judge the people. But in Luke, “John’s preaching is taken beyond mere warning of impending judgment to provide some guidelines for living in the meantime. Though the crowds in general are said to pose the question, the response is directed specifically to those wealthy enough to have extra food or clothing.” (Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, 53) In Luke, unlike the other gospels, John the Baptist returns to some of the oldest biblical traditions concerned with economic justice. In a world where most people were lucky to own even one coat, some might thin he was demanding a new economic order. In fact, we often think of John as a radical extremist, a sort of revolutionary, who prepares the way for a Messiah that will intervene on behalf of the weak and the poor. John even repeats his threats: if the people refuse to follow his instructions, the coming Messiah will burn them as chaff with unquenchable fire.
But, honestly, I’m tired of the message: “do it, or else… Feed the poor, or face the consequences of your greedy lifestyle.” All too often its stated as a threat, a “should” dictated by liberals who sound more like angry tyrants, using scare tactics to force us to comply. For instance, it was such a downer this holiday season listening to all the politically correct naysayers denounce our penchant for gift-giving. Like Scrooge or the Grinch, they seem intent on robbing us of all the joy of Christmas.
But maybe there’s a reason to be frightened. Rene Girard, one the most important thinkers on the relationship between violence and religion, warns, the wrath to come is a very real threat that looms on the horizon. Rather than punishment inflicted by a cruel God, it is the result of an escalating crisis in which everyone competes for wealth and privilege, generating anger and resentment on all sides, which unchecked, erupts in violent chaos (see Rene Girard’s recent book: Battling to the End, 211).
- In Luke’s story, the crowd, which in Greek also translates as throng or mob, is desperate for someone to take charge and resolve the mounting tensions. Whether they’re rich or poor, a member of the status quo, or someone longing for economic justice, they are all united by their fear of the wrath: the violent chaos which they interpret as divine punishment for their sins. And since they refuse to take responsibility for the actual sources of that violence the crowd seeks out a leader, a “savior,” who will pronounce judgment and bring the situation under control. Is it any wonder they mistake John for the Messiah: his angry rhetoric seems to fit the bill.
- We witness a similar crisis today, in which the refusal to equitably distribute the worlds’ resources breeds anger and resentment across the globe: the East accuses the West of being “greedy imperialists,” while the West insists the terrorists are “jealous of our freedom.” As these tensions continue to build, they accumulate as a form of wrath, which threatens to erupt in violent upheaval. In the past, biblical laws which demanded some sort of redistribution of wealth helped to limit the excess of greed and prevent violent eruption.
- Today acts of generosity on the part of the wealthy nations have the same potential to alleviate mounting global tensions, but that generosity, as we know, falls far too short, leaving too many people without the basic necessities of life. Meanwhile greed goes unchecked, reaching proportions that have outstripped any and all limitation. Surely our over-consumption of goods, which reaches its most frenzied pitch during the holidays, heightens the problem. Should we, like the crowd in Luke’s story, be afraid? After all, by John the Baptist’s standards the ax cannot be too far from the tree…
- While its true that John addresses the problem of human greed, he is far less “revolutionary” than we tend to assume. In fact his approach is not all that novel. For instance, Proverbs, portions of which were written in the time of King Solomon, advises the wealthy person not to oppress the poor, not to extort through excessive interest, and to treat one’s enemies with kindness. Material prosperity is understood to be a good thing, but warns that those who are stingy with their stuff will end up losing it.
- John’s language in Luke 3:7-18 is also reminiscent of Ezekiel chapter 18 [link to text]. The prophet Ezekiel, who lived three centuries earlier than John, promises that those who engage in generous acts, will be rewarded with a prosperous life. If the wealthy person turns from selfish behavior and takes personal responsibility for fulfilling the promise of the law: do not oppress the poor, do not repay violence with violence, return the pledge of a borrower, and do not charge excessive interest, he will escape the violent eruption. But, like John the Baptist, the prophet goes on to threaten the one who does not repent:
- he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him. (Ezekiel 18:13)
- The severity of these threats demonstrates an awareness, conscious or not, that the coming wrath, the cycle of accumulated anger and resentment, must be avoided at all costs. It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the effects of greed in check. As Girard says, John the Baptist is very aware that the cycle is building again, that violence looms on the horizon. John responds by offering the same old solutions, which may calm things down for a bit, but only temporarily.
- So is there any hope for us? Can we escape the wrath to come? All four gospels agree that John the Baptist is to be followed by someone greater. John, trapped in the old way of seeing things, assumes this person will punish those who do not repent - not a very motivating or hope-filled vision…
- Luckily Jesus ends up being a very different Messiah than either John or the crowd expect. In fact, there is a very important difference between John and Jesus, especially when it comes to social and economic justice; it is the same difference that postmodern philosopher John D. Caputo draws between an economic order, no matter how just, and the simple act of gift giving. If we compare John the Baptist’s instructions to those given by Jesus three chapters later, in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount), we get a sense of it:
- “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
- Where John says to tax-
- collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Jesus goes further saying: “lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35) While John is rigid and threatening in his approach to economic justice, Jesus is caught up in what Caputo describes as the “excess,” the “madness” of gift-giving. (John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, 70-71, 84).
So maybe we should think twice before rejecting holiday gift giving. Especially since we love gifts, not just because we are selfish and hope that by giving a gift, we will get one in return, but because the pure gift, the gift given entirely out of love, as impossible as it seems, is the very thing we long for (Caputo, 70-71).
For instance, instead of squashing our gift-giving mania, the Advent Conspiracy [link] taps into all that holiday good will, redirecting it into projects which help the poor and underprivileged. By asking their congregations to to spend less on Christmas gifts, churches have raised money to build wells in places where clean water is hard to come by. These efforts certainly deserve to be applauded, but at the same time they must remain mindful of their rhetoric [link]. There’s always a risk it could turn to self-righteous indignation, and the sort threatening language Ezekiel and John Baptist were unable to avoid.
Afterall, we don’t want to end up like “Sombertown” in the Christmas TV classic, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, in which Santa Claus is arrested for delivering toys to the village children whose lives are dreary, because the burgermeister, who hates toys, has outlawed them:
“outlaw the dolls and sink the boats… every jack-in-the box be sealed… stuffed animals, unstuff them, any child that complains, rebuff them.”
Who knows, maybe he’s afraid that competition over the toys will get out of hand and create chaos? In fact, when Santa first arrives in the village to deliver toys, the towns people are so frightened they hide in their homes. But the children, who are more open-minded than their parents, quickly respond with joy to the unexpected generosity of these gifts. Even the threat of severe punishment cannot block or inhibit the effect the toys have on all the town’s children who immediately start playing. Slowly this joy impacts the adults, even melting the heart of the Winter Warlock.
The burgermeister, on the other hand, becomes increasingly disturbed by the interruptive power of Santa’s gift-giving; which proves impossible to contain. In fact, Santa’s generosity ruptures the town’s rigid order, not only undoing every attempt to prohibit the toys, it finally unlocks the adults’ repressed longing for things they’ve been denied since childhood: a china doll, a yo-yo, a toy train. I admit, the idea that there is one toy or object that will make us happy is ridiculous - as Rene Girard says, we do not have autonomous control over our desires - we desire what others provoke us to desire: this year its a Wii, or a large screen TV, next year it will be something else... Sadly enough, now that the lights on the Christmas tree have dimmed, some of those presents we received Christmas Day have already lost their luster.
However, this in no way denies the fact that we continue to long for a gift that is, in a sense, indestructible. “The gift is what we love and desire with a desire beyond desire, in which we hope with a hope against hope,” the gift that “is given with love,” even if the one giving is “not loved in return.” (Caputo, 72) This can’t be limited to any single object, to a single instruction, or calculation, or act of charity, but is the event of gift-giving itself. Its not the toys which breath new life into “Sombertown,” but the excessive nature of Santa’s generosity, which despite the cost to Santa himself, keeps on giving, asking nothing in return. Because the gift always exceeds our expectation, it invites our participation, calls us forward (Caputo, 71), towards a less rigid order in which people are more generous, more forgiving, less angry and resentful. Initiatives like the Advent Conspiracy, though not the gift itself, are examples of this, of an expansion of Christmas to include those once left out.
For John the Baptist, or Ezekiel, this joyful interruption of gift-giving in the midst a threatening order would have arrived as an unforeseen possibility. It is the “madness” that Jesus unleashes on the Cross (Caputo) when he gives of himself so completely. This event exceeds their expectation, for not only does Jesus expose us, and our actions, as the source of violent wrath, at the same time Jesus saves us from the threat of violent upheaval, by giving us what can only be called a gift: the impossible possibility of a human response free of all anger and resentment, born of the most profound commitment to love the very ones who persecuted him. For this reason we can claim Jesus’ action on the Cross as the messianic event so many have longed for.
Has Santa Claus usurped Jesus? No way… it’s just not possible, since Jesus was the one who got this whole Christmas gift-giving madness going in the first place. When we participate in this kind of generosity, we open ourselves and each other to gifts we can not foresee, but so desperately need. What if we built wells, not only for the poor in Africa, but for the Iranians, the Afghans, the North Koreans? Like a jack-in-the-box, the accumulation of anger and resentment, and the rigid order that wants to contain it, could break open (even if just for a moment) and we’d glimpse some human possibility which is truly wondrous. - Sue Wright