‘We are living in a material world’, as the singer Madonna reminds us.
Our human existence is a physical one – we are not disembodied spirits or floating souls. Christianity is actually a very materialistic faith. Its major tenets are that God creates the tangible universe with all its planets, minerals, energy and chemistry. The Earth is a godly, holy place – its ecological processes are all part of a purposeful plan, we believe.
That same God then takes human shape and is to be encountered in the form of a growing child and adult born in a physical town called Bethlehem (literally meaning ‘house of bread’). Incarnation, if it means anything, now encompasses human struggle and passion, fear and hope. For Christians, the divine cannot be separated from the human because the human is the vehicle for the divine. The Holy has become touchable in the flesh – in the very atoms of existence which the Creator breathes life into. The Christmas stories, though cloaked in mysterious wonder, also remind us that ‘matter matters’!
That which is substantial has to be taken seriously. There can be no good news unless it is embedded in the very fabric of material existence. It is through the planet as our common home and humankind as our common family that we are loved and shaped to be the people we become.
Our basic human requirements – good air quality, clean water, healthy food, caring home, sense of security, total well-being and so on – not only provide for our physical needs, they are also the ingredients for our cultural and spiritual ones. What is measurable is fused with what is non-measurable.
The Christmas season consumer ethos is, on the face of it, equally materialistic. We purchase so called ‘goods’ to make us and others happy. Yet we so saturate our lives in excessive products that we appreciate them less and less. The sheer volume of gifts, cards, food and drink can devalue the very pleasure of enjoying them.
Maybe this is why the modern Christmas experience needs to be tampered by humility, vulnerability, even poverty, and certainly justice? Others lose out because some have too much. Yet it is when we have little that we purposefully cherish things more highly. When we have it all, we appear to value nothing.
So, we discard most of Christmas very quickly, attested to in the immense piles of packaging, half-eaten food, and sorrowful decorations. Our ‘stuff’ is disposable, as are our relationships. Everything is in danger of being passed over for the next novelty.
From this perspective, maybe we need to become more materialistic, not less? When we attentively appreciate the fragility of gifts, then we can embrace their given-ness more deeply. It is in living with less that we deepen the relationship with those who give, as well as that which is received.
What ultimately pleases us – immediate gratification or long-term fulfilment? We need both, of course, but if we live without something more profound, some deeper set of meaning and purpose, will we ever be complete primarily by filling our homes with plastic gadgetry and festive fayre?
There is much evidence from psychology to suggest that our personal security ultimately comes from stable and lasting relationships. Consequently, products that last are likely to be better for people’s satisfaction as well as for the environment.
So, hold something precious in your hand and reflect on its journey from others to you – remember those whose hands have also held the beauty or the wonder or the usefulness. Recall its origin and think about its final destination. Buying something to last, not to throw away within a few weeks, expresses appreciation of a caring relationship.
We become greener by purchasing and throwing away less, and opening our arms to those who do not feel hopeful, loved or seasonally cheered.
Appreciating the greatness of the small is perhaps a positive maxim for this season. All life begins in mystery on a micro scale and grows according to how it is handled and cared for. Maybe it’s time to see presents as making less sense unless we sense the presence of love behind and beyond them.
Seasonal greetings of peace and wholeness
“Human beings are not shut up in their tiny human world; they live with the great community of life and include in their love all beings of creation” – Leonardo Boff