Cover story -- Christmas
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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

Christmas presents or presence?


Christmas has come to be associated with Santa Claus, chocolates, Barbie dolls and all sorts of gifts and presents. It is a time when families feel they must go for that extra round of shopping. Black Fridays and Cyber-Mondays have been invented to appeal to these Christmas shoppers. Children are conditioned to believe that it is a season not only to be jolly but also to buy new clothes, acquire new toys and, most of all, to receive plenty of presents. After all, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus and every child knows that birthdays are occasions for gifts.

This consumeristic and acquisitive culture did not just appear from nowhere. It has been with us for as long as material worth is used as a measure of one’s status. Some even point to the Bible as having provided the justification for such spendthrift attitudes. For was it not on the birthday of the messiah that he was given gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? The narrative of Matthew’s Gospel has it that they were brought by the wise men, who were pagans but highly educated people, able to read the stars and discern saving truths from the cosmic bodies. Moreover, they had access to no other than King Herod. Anyone who could simply make a stopover to ask the king for directions cannot be an ordinary nobody. They were of the privileged and elite class. They had wealth. Their gifts were by no means ordinary, but symbols of status, nobility and honor.

Thus, if Christmas is associated with gift-giving it is because the infancy narrative of Matthew’s Gospel is a record of how the rich and the elite community took to the birth of Christ. Following the rising star, this high-status community, as represented by the Magi, came to pay homage to the baby Jesus, but not before a courtesy visit to King Herod, representing the world’s kings and rulers. The consequences of this encounter of the rich with the newborn messiah, as the Gospel reveals, were tragic. Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath and envy of King Herod. They were forced to become refugees and undocumented migrants. The most critical consequence was the massacre of the infants in the city of Bethlehem. Innocent bystanders became victims just because the rich wise men made that journey to bring gifts to the baby Jesus.

These negative consequences notwithstanding, the narrative of the wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh has taken on romantic appeal. They are favorite themes for preachers only too eager to preach the good news that the King of the Jews, rejected by the Jews themselves, was accepted wholeheartedly by the gentiles, as represented by the Magi. They speak of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as a prophetic reenactment of Israel’s Exodus experience and the killing of the innocents as a necessary fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah. This is the divine message that is regularly preached and passed down from generation to generation. They are the stuff of Christmas pageants and children’s Bible-story books. Every child in Sunday school looks forward to playing the role of the wise men and dressing up in glittering robes and colorful turbans, singing the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” They play their roles of magnanimous gift-givers against the background of the cries of innocent toddlers and the wailing of mothers whose babies are slaughtered so that a prophecy could be fulfilled. What God would allow such cruelty to befall the innocent just to push a point that Jesus is the savior awaited by the world? The visit of the wise men may have been good news to the Christian storyteller, but certainly bad news to the innocent children and their parents as well as to Jesus and his parents.

Fortunately, there is another message from the same Christian Bible that does not promote this bad news. In the infancy narrative found in the Gospel of Luke, we see not the wise men but the unwise shepherds working in the fields. These are the poor, the outcasts, the dirty and the nobodies of society. They were uneducated, unable to read the heavens or the stars. They had, however, the privilege of a direct revelation from God’s angels, who gently announced to them the birth of the messiah.

Their response to this announcement was immediate. As the Gospel reveals, they went “in haste” to look for the newborn child. They did not stop by Wal-Mart or Walgreens or a shopping mall to get gifts for the child Jesus. They probably could not have afforded gifts anyway. Instead, their action was simple and straightforward. All they wanted was to go and be with Jesus, the messiah and lord. They brought with them no presents but certainly the gift of presence, which probably counted for more than any material presents they could have brought.

This gift of presence, unfortunately, is something people have difficulty giving today. I spent last Christmas visiting a friend, a 72-year-old woman, in a Chicago hospital. She was dying of cancer and had undergone several rounds of chemotherapy. At her bed was a huge bouquet of flowers with a beautiful heart-shaped balloon protruding from it. The balloon carried the message “I love you, Mom” on one side and “Merry Christmas” on the reverse. I asked about it and Janet told me it was from her son living in California. He sends a bouquet every week. I asked if he had visited, to which she replied: “He’s a very busy man. He’s had no chance to visit me for the last three years.”

This lack of presence, of course, is not something peculiar to industrialized countries. People in developing countries, especially those equally caught up in the rat race, face the same problem. I once organized a live-in children’s camp in Malaysia. At the end of the weeklong event when the children were returning home I received a call from Isabel’s parents saying they could not pick her up until 10 o’clock that evening. I expected Isabel to feel sad but was surprised when she suggested that her parents come the next day instead. “I prefer to stay here,” she explained. “When I go home, I am all alone. My parents are at work the whole day and don’t have time for me.”

Perhaps this Christmas ought to be a time when people offer the gift of presence rather than presents. As Luke’s Gospel tells us, the result would be the choir of angels singing Gloria in excelsis Deo. Merry Christmas!

Edmund Chia is assistant professor of doctrinal studies at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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