Friday, December 23, 2011

Gifts for the naughty and nice

Some big words for God
As a child, I memorized some big words about the nature of God. God was “omnipotent”, “omniscient”, and “omnipresent”. This all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere God seemed far removed from me and from my experiences. This ‘omni-God’, who had a rosy existence high above the clouds, was both comforting and frightening to a powerless child. God was in control, and that was good or bad, depending on one’s behavior.

God and Santa Claus
At Christmastime, Santa Claus became intertwined with God in my childhood thinking. Santa Claus lived up at the top of the world. He kept a big book with the names of the naughty and nice for the sole purpose of delivering gifts to deserving children at Christmas. But, God remained in command. God could make Santa bring presents even to naughty children.

There was another important distinction between God and Santa Claus. Santa Claus did not hover in my childhood consciousness year round. I only thought about Santa in the days before Christmas, whereas God always seemed to be present.

Discovering a more personal God
At some point during my childhood religious instruction, the emphasis shifted away from the ‘omni-God’ to a more personal God. God was intimately involved in human affairs. Christmas was the wonderful celebration of God’s coming into the world as a little baby, and living as one of us. God was the original giver of gifts, offering both the naughty and nice the gift of love.

Revelations from the Christmas story
The Christmas story reveals some surprising things about the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. God is gentle. God comes into the world as a powerless, vulnerable, and dependent baby. God is humble. God comes down to our level, and participates in our human experience. The heavenly vantage point of ‘omni’ characteristics does not prevent God from participating in human experience.

The story of Christmas is an ancient story with the elements of a great drama – suspense, action, mystery and a diverse cast of characters. Even though it has been retold annually for over 2000 years, it continues to speak to the human condition. The plot is simple; its meaning is deep.

"Adoration of the Shepherds"
Gerard van Honthorst, 1622
The story as we know it today is a combination of two ancient narratives, one from the Gospel of Luke, and the other from the Gospel of Matthew. The story begins with a couple, Mary and Joseph, who are obedient to the will of God. She will bear a holy child, miraculously conceived; he will stick by her through thick and thin. They journey to Bethlehem where the baby, Jesus, is born in a stable. Angels announce his birth to shepherds, who hurry from the fields to see the baby. A brilliant star guides wise men from the East towards Bethlehem where they find the child and worship him, laying expensive gifts at his feet. All seems rosy until an angel warns Joseph in a dream that King Herod has sent his troops to kill the child. The family flees, under cover of darkness, into Egypt.

This baby’s introduction to the world is not auspicious. He is born in the equivalent of a barn. His bed is a feeding trough for the animals. The dark and uncomfortable place of his birth makes God present to poor and powerless shepherds as well as to privileged magi.

The manger is the place of intimacy with God
God’s approachability and gentleness are part of the enduring appeal of the story. The vulnerability of the infant in the manger stands in stark contrast to the premium that we place on self-reliance and independence. The story of this birth gives us an opportunity to admit our own vulnerability. We can lay our weaknesses before the manger, where they become a gift that opens us to the presence of God. The manger becomes the place of intimacy with God, and a symbol of God’s nurturing love where all people can go to be fed.

At the manger, shepherds, who were little better than outlaws, found acceptance and went away empowered. The shepherds remind us that all of us are deserving of God’s love. At the manger, the magi, who were seekers of knowledge, found wisdom and went away fulfilled. The magi remind us that faith is a life long quest to encounter the divine.

Gifts that last
The gifts that Santa brought me as a child were transient. They have long since ceased to exist as objects in my life, and have faded from memory. The gifts that God offers are ever-present. Whether we have been naughty or nice, gifts of reconciliation, acceptance, and wisdom wait to be unwrapped. This Christmas may we find intimacy with the gentle God who is light for our darkness, comfort for our discomfort, and power for our weakness.

Image Courtesy of Grant Cochrane/

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bringing hope to the poor

Christmas shopping and stress
Once upon a time, the commercial pitch for Christmas shopping began on Black Friday. This year, it had begun by November 10. We had yet to commemorate Remembrance Day. American Thanksgiving and Black Friday were still two weeks away. The commercial hype around Christmas seems to begin earlier every year.

Coincidental with all of the holiday hype are tips to avoid holiday stress. One important tip from experts is to determine your spending limit, and stick to it. Despite warnings that consumer debt is out of control, and predictions of a slowing global economy that will negatively impact the Canadian economy, recent surveys show that Canadians will overspend their holiday budget. One television reporter, after interviewing shoppers in a big city mall, cheerfully concluded that Christmas spending is “priceless if it puts a smile on young faces.”

The reporter’s upbeat message was certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit of good cheer. The message is a feel-good one if a family can afford “priceless.” The reality, though, is that many Canadians cannot afford their Christmas spending splurge. If Christmas can be stressful for those who have some purchasing power, imagine how stressful the holiday season must be for those who live in poverty.

The season accentuates need
Statistics Canada puts the poverty rate at 1 in 10 Canadians. The rate is even higher for children. The before tax poverty line for a family of 4 living in an urban area is $41, 307. Many poor families earn only$27, 107 before taxes. That’s a whopping $14, 200 below the base line.

During the Christmas season, those who live in poverty must feel the desperation of their situation more keenly that at other times of the year. The poor are shut out of the ubiquitous feel-good commercial message that bombards consumers before Christmas.

The over-commercialization of the Christmas holiday distracts from the more meaningful aspects of the celebration of Christmas. The relentless advertising campaigns send some messages about Christmas that do not ring true for many Canadians, especially for those living in poverty.

The commercialization of Christmas presents an image of a universally happy time. Everyone has money to spend, good food and drink to enjoy, and the fellowship of people who love them. In Christmas commercials, the holiday season meets everyone’s expectations. And, all these things – gifts, food, drink, and love – in the world of Christmas advertising depend on spending freely.

Traditions express a spiritual reality
Gift giving, feasting and celebrating are integral parts of Christmas. They can express a spiritual reality about human existence. The spiritual underpinnings of Christmas give the season its meaning and joy.

In the New Testament tradition, the weeks before Christmas are all about hope for the future. The birth of a baby, born in lowly circumstances, reveals God’s generous love for humanity that will restore justice to the world.

In the Christmas story, poor shepherds come from the surrounding hillsides, and wealthy magi come from afar to adore the baby Jesus, who is born in a stable. The message from the stable, where both shepherds and kings gather, is that God’s love is inclusive. No one is shut out from the generous gift of God’s wondrous love.

Charity is important but we can do more
Thousands of Canadians, irrespective of religious belief, imitate this divine generosity during the holiday season. The season heightens our awareness of those who are less fortunate. We respond to the needs of others in a much more comprehensive way than at any other time of the year. We give freely to food banks, and toy drives. We contribute dollars to organizations that serve the poor. Our charity gives hope, brings priceless smiles to the faces of young and old alike, and sends the message that someone cares.

Our material generosity at Christmas is really only a band-aid solution to need. The social problem of poverty remains long after we have swept up the needles from the tree, and stowed the Christmas decorations away for another year. The poor remain poor. We can live the Christmas message of generosity year round. Not only can we continue to be charitable, we can add advocacy to our charity, and work to reduce poverty.

Once upon a time, there was a land where everyone had enough food, a warm home, and hope for the future dwelt in their hearts. The Christmas story invites us to create the feel-good ending of ‘happily ever after’.

Images Credits and links:
Credit card image courtesy of

Shopping Santa courtesy of Kittisak at