“8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” (Romans 13:8, NIV).
So Christmas is upon us again, that wonderful time of year where we get to celebrate with family, join in on amazing Christmas traditions like carols nights, and turkey and glazed ham and open presents. Oh the presents, for some people, especially younger people, so many presents, present’s galore.
Gift giving is one of the great traditions of Christmas, and it even predates the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. In Yuletide in northern Europe people gave each other presents. In pagan Rome people gave each other presents. Indeed if you remember the Christmas story well you will know that several Magi, from the East (aka from a pagan nation, likely Babylon) came to Jesus’ birth place, Bethlehem, bearing gifts. Gifts are a wonderful expression of human generosity and human selflessness. They allow us to express our care for others in a tangible and solid way, and they allow us to shower blessings on, and increase the joy of, those we care about, at least for a time. There are even wonderful opportunities to give gifts to complete strangers on the other side of the world through charitable organizations.
But if I said that this gift giving experience was only positive, we all know that would not be true. Gift giving is a wonderful opportunity to bless someone else. But in our modern society it has been turned into an opportunity for showmanship, braggadocio and worst of all, it has become a trap that sends people into further and further debt every year. A rather confronting meme has been making its rounds online, and though it is a harsh image, I think it says something powerful about what Christmas is and isn’t. It is a picture of someone who is cutting their wrists with a credit card, and their blood is flowing down to a wrapped present and landing in the shape of a bow. These words accompany the picture: “No holiday should manipulate you to the point where you’re going into debt just to show someone you love them.” It’s a confronting picture and a powerful message, but I do not view it as an anti-Christmas message.
You see the message of Christmas is not supposed to be, and never really was, go into debt to blow your children’s minds with what you can give them. I understand the desire to want to give your children good things, and if you can afford much by all means give to your hearts content. I also understand the idea that we don’t want to appear stingy, and I think some people do compete with others with the amount they give their children for Christmas. But this is not what Christmas was ever meant to be about or should be about. We cannot let Christmas get co-opted by the mercantile nature of those who just want to turn it into money making enterprise. I think something inside of all of us is repulsed at the way Christmas has become so much about money and things. We understand there is more to life than this, and we want to experience those other aspects of joy that don’t come through money. And that’s what the true meaning of Christmas actually points to.
You see the message of Christmas is not go into debt, it is this: you can have your debts paid. I don’t mean someone else will literally pay your credit card debt (though how cool would that be, but also how bad for us would this be if it kept happening?). I mean the message of the Christmas is that there is a God who loves you, no matter how many or how few possessions you have. There is a God who wants you to have a chance to know him. A God who we have all sinned against, who instead of just sitting in the sky looking for a chance to judge us, actually makes a way for our record of sinful debts to be cleared. You know those sins, those mistakes that keep us up at night? The ones that weigh on our mind and steal sleep from us? Those hurts we have inflicted on others and feel terrible guilt about? You know those deep wounds that no amount of retail therapy can actually heal? Jesus offers us salvation, in others words to pay our debt of sin, and clear our slate.
The way he did this was by sending his son to become a small child, Jesus, who was born in a manger, who lived a perfect life, the life we cannot live. This child became the grown man Jesus who then died on our behalf taking the punishment we deserved, and that he didn’t deserve, and he did this willingly. Then he rose to life again, so that anyone who wants to trust in him can have the eternal life he achieved.
The message of Christmas is not: get into debt to impress. It is this: God wants to pay our debts, that we owe him. He wants to free us from our guilt and shame through forgiveness.
In other word’s the message of Christmas has been directly inverted by our culture. And this is sad. I encourage you to remember the free gift of salvation that God offers us. The free gift that he promises to all who believe in him. How much more awesome does that gift sound? To me it sounds so much better than the sound of the cash register ringing, or the credit card machine swiping. It also feels better to experience the free gifts of salvation than the terrible regret so many people experience in January when they realize how much they have spent, and how empty they still feel, and how much debt they now owe.
Possessions won’t satisfy, but God offers us something better. That’s the message of Christmas, as the wonderful Harry Belafonte Christmas songs says: “And man shall live forevermore, because of Christmas day…”