Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas and Our Darkness

There are people who have benefitted from hard times. The bootleggers and the crime that was fed by them during the Great Depression, the influx of gambling and the mob into Las Vegas are all examples. In my line of work the erstwhile happy days of IT services are entering and have already entered in many cases into darker terrain. Clients are spending less on streamlining business processes, improving customer and employee experiences with processes and systems and looking not so much at saving costs over a long period of time as at cutting existing cash outflow, thereby leaving no room for arguments of investing into the future.

Who makes money during a depression? There are distinct divergences in the answer to this question depending on what market you are addressing. For our purpose let's address the most basic market of all- the workaday man or woman who has lost a job or is getting paid less due to cost cutting measures or underemployment at their place of work. What do they buy at home? On special occasions like Christmas they try not to merely subsist, because Christmas as an event comes only once a year and even keeping aside the matter of faith, most families want to create memories and look beyond their troubles at this time. They spend cautiously and try to give more meaningful gifts. Peggy Noonan wrote a column about this a couple of weeks ago, asking if we were going to see the first Christmas of restraint in America.

When Christmas is over and the New Year comes in, what would they do? Clearly they need to spend on basic items like food, heating, electricity, schooling- which they cannot do without. But we may see less private school enrolment, less eating out or high end foods (organic, gourmet, imported), lower heating, less usage of electrical appliances and so on. Some may spend money on more nice-to-have items, albeit cautiously. And yes, companies realize this, so many offer financial or other commercial structuring to ease the burden; and of course they make money off it. I received a flyer from AT&T asking us to switch to a convergent product and service offering, giving us unlimited local calls, 120 HD TV channels and high speed internet for less than the price we now pay for our home phone. I have received mais from our bank asking us to consolidate our loans into a single loan, thereby allowing us to pay less on a monthly basis, but reducing our capital in the total value of our home and car. Some of these address our needs very clearly-like AT&T's offer (it didn't come with any unreasonable time commitments), others like that of the bank involve a trade-off which gives one pause for thought.

There are many ideas out there. None are so compelling to a Christian as the idea of losing something yourself so that someone else may gain. We have heard the pithy statement that 'Christmas is about giving, not getting.' Ths message comes in soundbytes from TVs, childrens' books and other media, but the example we have set so far leaves this statement fall with a dull thud.

Why is Christmas about giving? Most of are filled with thanks when someone remembers us enough to give us a meaningful gift. O Henry's story, 'The Gift of the Magi' has been told, retold, caricatured, criticized, spoofed so many times we do not think much about it. I was reminded of it today from RZIM's Jill Carattini writing in the daily devotional. She writes:

Jim Dillingham Young and his wife Della are the subjects of The Gift of the Magi, a short story written by O. Henry in 1906. Struggling to make ends meet in their one room apartment, Jim and Della have but two prized possessions between them: for Jim, a pocket watch given to him by his father, and for Della, her long, beautiful hair, of which even the queen of Sheba would be envious. When Christmas comes, Jim and Della have nothing to scrape together to buy even a simple gift for the other. Yet, longing to give something meaningful out of great love, each, unbeknownst to the other, sacrifices the greatest treasure of the house; Della sells her hair to buy her husband a silver chain for his beloved pocket watch, and Jim his pocket watch to buy Della pearl combs for her beautiful hair. Thus unfolds The Gift of the Magi and “the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days,” writes O. Henry, “let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”

Why were these two the wisest? Could it be because the receiver of the gift received much mroe than the gift itself? He/she knew what it cost the other. Could it be because the giver of the gift took a step that demonstrated his/her desire to break free from themselves and love the other sacrificially? What is it about sacrifice that is so sweet and so heartbreaking? How may Jim have felt when he knew that Della couldn't benefit from his gift? Would he have felt better if Della hadn't sold her hair? Della would then have her gift but Jim would not have his. Did he feel better because Della's loss in this situation now was somehow compensated by the fact that she (like him) knew that the other loved her? Is love so strong as to give selflessly and not receive anything at all in return? But both Della and Jim did not do what they did thinking of a reciprocal gift. Maybe we could put this in another context. If we were in either Jim or Della's place, would we be the happier for what we did if the other did not give us a reciprocal gift? I'm inclined to think that we would, but I wonder- with our human inclination to sin- if that happiness would as intense when the rougher patches come up. Perhaps we need to know that acts of compassion will be rewarded, but not in the way we expect. People who do selfless acts with nothing to look forward to may be actually, even subconsciously, looking forward to something. A few years ago I read the story of a millionaire who gave away everything he had, became poor, and driven by guilt and a desire to alleviate pain, gave away his kidney, donated other organs in principle on the event of his death. He still wasn't satisfied with all that he had done. What was he seeking? If it was absolution for his sins, would he be satisfied with these enormously charitable acts? Can he now look back and say with confidence that he had done all he needed to do?

When Jesus came into the world as a baby, he demonstrated a truly selfless act, which too had a purpose that he knew it would accomplish. This was not meant to benefit himself but to fulfill his plan for humanity. Jesus also knew that this would satisfy his desire to enter into his Father's love. What does this mean? He never needed to be loved any more than he was by the Father (and vice versa), but this was a fulfillment of the love, the way by which such a love was worked out in flesh and blood. Indeed, as Hebrews 12:2 says, "Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

The joy that was set before him. If Jesus anticipated this joy as he looked to the excruciating death so immediately before him, was the cross an event with no visibility into the future? Are all our efforts to save the environment, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, medical care to the suffering who cannot afford it ends in themselves? What is the joy that drives you? If it has not been defined yet, look to the cross for a possible understanding. The babe in the manger with, as Chris Rice says, his "tiny heart whose blood will save us" was the one in whom "all your hopes and fears are met tonight". Our acts of love and compassion are yearnings to transcend ourselves, to leave this troubling self-serving existence to mean something to "others" (or could it be, to that "Other", who we are often unwilling, even embarassed, to name?). If they are yearnings, but cannot be satisfied even with giving away all of ourselves, like the millionaire did, what can save us? Perhaps O Henry's moral from his story is that giving is indeed what Christmas is about, but nothing meaningful can be given or received without sacrifice. Isn't it remarkable that the most loved Christmas carols have a minor note in them that gives us the taste of what the expectation of Advent means?

Is there joy in the cross? Christmas invites us to find out. "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6,7)" "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)"

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