Born To Set Thy People Free. From Junk They Don’t Need

Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t quite understand why you are buying Christmas presents.  I mean, that is, if you are a Christian who celebrates Advent. In other words, if you spend four weeks preparing for the coming of Christ by fasting, repenting, telling ancient stories, refusing to sing songs with the word Hallelujah in them, or otherwise acknowledging that all is not well in this world and that we are deep need of a savior, then I don’t get why you are buying a bunch of plastic junk from China to give away on Christmas day.

Did that sound judgmental?  I didn’t mean it too. Honestly.  It’s just that I don’t understand why we spend a month longing for Jesus and then attempt to sate that desire with video games, gadgets, books, gift cards, clothes, and perfume.

I have very thoughtful Christian friends who explain why they give gifts on Christmas, and they make thoughtful arguments that make some sense to me. For example, “These gifts are reminders of God’s gift to us in Jesus.” But does anyone actually experience their gifts that way?

Still, we have always told our kids that on their birthdays we celebrate them extravagantly, so on Jesus’ birthday we should celebrate him extravagantly.  We sing, and go to church, and unfurl the final panel in our Advent story, and light the Christ candle, and buy and make gifts for the homeless in our neighborhood, refugee babies around the world, and working families in developing countries around the world.

Last year, though, when Nafisa came to live with us, we decided to buy all three of the kids a gift.  We explained that Nafisa had done so much to fit in with our family, and we wanted to do something to fit in with her family of origin.  The kids all loved it, but it felt flat to me.  It seemed, actually, to mock all that we experienced during Advent.

I live in, and participate all too fully in, a culture that wants to distort and then commodify Truth and Beauty.  My soul is dimmed by that distortion and my accompanying lust for stuff; and much of the year I train my children to follow me in this soul-crushing lifestyle.  Do I really want to cap off this one season of longing and hope by saying, “Yes! The answer is here.  Under the tree.  In a box. What we’ve been waiting for is here.”

The children in my Sunday School class are going to sing Come Thou Long Expect Jesus for the church this week.  As I play it over and over with the boys, I’ve been asking myself which aspects of our family life reflect the truth of this prayer, and which deny it.  Even without the presents, it’s easy to get lost this time of year.  What about you?  What are you longing for this year?

  • Come thou long expected Jesus.  
  • Born to set Thy people free.
  • From our fears and sins release us.
  • Let us find our rest in Thee
  • Israel’s strength and consolation
  • Hope of all the earth Thou art
  • Dear desire of every nation
  • Joy of every longing heart
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  • CPeterson

    This was a good reflective piece. I’ve asked some similar questions. I have reached a place where I live contentedly in the tension. I deeply value and explore Advent more and more each year. And I enjoy parts of an American cultural Christmas. Side by side. Not a hybrid. Just two separate parts of my life in December. Simplistically like the Sabbath and football on weekends. My tree and stockings and certain fun parts are simply the culture and tradition I grew up with, still enjoy on a simpler scale, and value the beauty and familiarity in certain traditions on that side of the December coin. And then deep within, I quiet my soul in expectation and promise. I wonder. I ponder. I pause. I intentionally explore mystery and seek quiet. Advent. I do intentionally keep my schedule simple and avoid the mall. I avoid buying gifts if at all possible. I prefer to give to charities that support other issues of poverty in honor of friendships. I give food items as I hold fast to the magnificence of a shared meal. We host a family breakfast to gather the gang together in a relaxed setting around the table as our gift to them. And I do have fun filling Glen’s stocking, as he does mine, when the budget permits. With that stocking, I honor the joy in knowing and loving someone well enough to recognize some of his needs and toss in a few surprises to enrich his life while letting him know I pay attention to him in all kinds of ways. When I see what he has hidden in my stocking, I recognize that I have stepped into relationship with him in a way that opens me to his love and to also being known. Symbolic? Maybe. Maybe not. A reminder of what really matters? Indeed. I struggled along the way to live in the balance of American Christmas and the call to center in Advent. But there is no balance for me. So I just drive along the two-lane highway, a scenic and memorable December drive. That works. And I watch the frenzy of festivities and exhausted people pass me by.

    • Tara Edelschick

      Thanks Cindy. I appreciate the side-by-sideness you describe. What a great way to look at it.