Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas and Consumption

Kurt Nelson
Rollins Chapel, 12.4.11
John 1: 1-5, 14, 16

Advent is a season,
as today's scripture reminds us,
 of light and life and grace upon grace.
And there's much to love:
family gatherings.
lights shining in the darkness.
the end of academic terms.
But each year I watch advent unfold,
in our broader culture,
with a mix of horror, fascination, and despair.
In theory, this is a season of waiting.
A time of contemplation, and anticipation.
A time of delayed gratification,
A time to ponder the good news of the idea of God living among us,
and what that means for the future of the world.
But, of course, in practice
it’s not really a time for any of those things.
More than anything,
it’s a season for rampant consumption.
A season for Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays.
For frenzied arguments over whether stores should open at midnight,
the day after thanksgiving.
or  do the civil thing, and wait until 6 AM.
A time for constant advertisements
featuring bows on the top of luxury automobiles,
and joy
provided by electronics and jewelry.
fat men with large, white beards,
I try to avoid the commercials.
Try to sidestep the headlines from black Friday mobs,
and shopping freak outs.
But I can’t.
And so I watched this year,
as a pack of seemingly normal people,
screamed and pushed and clawed,
Fighting as if they had staked their very souls,
on the procurement of a cheap means by which to make waffles.

I sat transfixed as a new genre of holiday commercials developed,
which pit sexy, tech-savvy moms,
with insider access to all the cool, necessary electronics
against the clueless Santa Claus,
with his out-dated wares.

This consumptive culture has surpassed, I think,
all else that advent offers,
and I admit, that it’s not entirely a happy season for me.
And freely admit that I’m far from immune,
from its manufactured desire.

It's worth noting this was not the worst year ever.
Holiday shopping has pushed unemployment numbers down.
We’re seeing “Shop Local Saturday”
take hold.
And no one, as far as I know,
was trampled or crushed by the mobs of people,
looking for those Black Friday special deals,
which would make their holidays meaningful.

True, one Target shopper did die.
But he had a pre-existing heart condition.
And true,
people passed him by
on their way to sweet deals on
sweaters, kitchen appliances, games and toys.
But, passive negligence in the face of good deals,
is preferable to the active crushing and trampling
we so often see during this season of peace.

Perhaps the word for all of this is greed.
Perhaps it’s simply the ancient, human problem,
writ large on a season of gift giving.

And perhaps the word for this is irony.
that a little line from Matthew about three Magi bringing gifts,
should turn into such a glut of consumption.
Ostensibly in celebration of a man,
who spent his time among the poor,
told people to give up all they had,
and turned over the tables of the bankers of his day.

Perhaps it’s simply irony
that a 3rd century Turkish Bishop named Nicholas,
who developed a reputation for giving gift to poor children
would become transformed into the fat, rosy cheeked
Santa Claus,
who brings toys of all kinds to good boys and girls in middle America,
who can afford a home with a fireplace.

But I think and fear it’s a challenge
newer than greed.
And a situation more complicated than ironic.
I think slowly, but surely,
we have come to define our very humanity
 by our consumptive habits,
our purchasing power
and our economic status.

We are,
I barely need to say,
constantly bombarded with advertizing.
Especially during this pre-Christmas season.
On television, news, websites,
email, billboards,
mailings…the list goes on.
We can’t avoid it,
and we barely notice it.
It is a concerted effort to manufacture desire,
for things we don’t really need.
And the message,
no matter what the product,
is that it's your joy and your job,
to consume.
And this message is furthered by our constant coverage
of economic news.
Things are good,
when the economy is growing,
retail is booming,
exports are exporting.
Economic good is synonymous with goodness and happiness.
And things are bad,
as they have been for a while,
when the opposite is true.
And the answer, of course,
is to stimulate the economy.
To make and buy more.
By any means necessary.
This is part of our daily political lexicon.
Post 9/11, in the wake of a terrible national tragedy,
the message sounded forth from the leader of our nation,
was that we need to shop.

We have a slew of candidates,
now convincing us that poor people are poor,
simply because they aren’t smart,
aren’t hard working,
aren’t ethical.

Consumers are good.
Job creators are especially good.
And all the rest aren’t simply poor.
They are bad.
Because consuming isn’t just what we do,
it’s who we are.
And this, I would argue, is a problem.

And furthering this problem,
is the fact that no longer is consumption a means to an end.
There’s no end point,
No finish line wherein we can stop buying,
having achieved all we need.
Rather, consumption is perpetual and infinite.
There will always be bigger, better, faster,
and newer.
And we will always need it.
Growth must be constant, and infinite.
There’s no satisfaction in achievement,
only satisfaction in continuing to pursue that ever receding horizon.
Gregory of Nyssa once wrote
“Never to reach [satisfaction] of desiring is truly to see God”
Which we could now amend to read:
"Never to reach satisfaction of desiring
is to enter the smart phone market."
Is consumption not now the object of our infinite longing?
In many ways, I think it is.
And this, I would argue, is a problem.

But it’s not, I don’t think
a problem born of a few evil men,
or corporations.
Nor can we point the finger to an increasingly secular world.
Rather, this is an act of our corporate selves.
And our collective willingness to fill the gap of our longing,
with things and purchasing power.

Thus it isn’t so much ironic
that the saintly Nicholas,
become the gluttonous, gift buyer and giver.
It’s apt.
And it’s not so much irony,
that has turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus,
into the celebration of businesses becoming fiscally solvent.
It’s perfect.
Because we are,
in many ways,
simply celebrating our sense of self,
and our ultimate concern,
by shopping.
And this, I would argue, is a problem.

But of course,
the light shines in the darkness.
And the darkness will not overcome it.
Still the good news of light and life,
and grace upon grace can break through.
Still the disruptive power
of the Word made flesh, dwelling among us
can seize hold of us.
Even amidst the noise and chaos,
and misdirected fervor of the advent season.

I see no easy solutions to the issue at hand.
Certainly we can buy less.
Certainly we can buy more ethically.

But I suspect we all know people,
whose livelihoods depend on Black Friday,
and all that comes with it.
It’s not terribly common,
but I do worry what might happen,
if more people took me seriously.
And pushed back against this
consumerist vision of humanity,
of the advent season.

But at the very least,
I think we can remind ourselves,
in the face of all our broader culture’s messages,
that we are not defined by what we can buy,
or what we have.
That we are not human by virtue of success,
or good grades.
Rather we are defined by God’s unconditional love for us,
Love so strong that God would send us the Word made flesh.

At the very least,
we can take brief moments,
as Mary did,
to ponder these things in our hearts.
especially here in this season,
of light and life,
and grace upon grace.

And at the very least,
we can take time to really celebrate.
We celebrate God with us in our human challenges,
God with us in our human struggling
God with us in our human failings.
The God of love.
The God of Light.
The God of Life.
The God of grace upon grace.

And thus we can resist this perpetual pull,
not only to consume constantly.
But to define ourselves
as economic beings.

And we have, in this season,
reason to be hopeful.
There are growing movements of people from all walks,
reminding the world that money,
is not the only stuff of value.

And we have, of course,
that ancient story.
Of life, and light,
and grace upon grace.
Constantly reminding us that we are more than we think we are.
That we are children of God.
That we are friends of Emanuel.
That we are loved in spite of ourselves.
And sent forth to love.
In you is light.
In you is life.
In you is grace upon grace.
You are loved.
And sent forth not to consume.
Not to succeed.
But to love.
For God is with you.
God is with us.
In this, and all seasons.

John 1: 1-5, 14,16
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.


  1. Very touching. I think there were three gifts and an unstated number of Magi.

  2. You are, of course, right. I can't keep "We Three Kings" out of my head, I guess.

  3. On a similar note, I was reminded during our dinner discussion that there was a black Friday incident involving pepper spray. So, maybe not such a good year after all...

  4. Apparently many bystanders stopped to help the person who had been sprayed while the sprayer paid for her purchases and left the store. It could have been, and has been, worse.