Voices: Christmas bondage and Christ’s liberation

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CNN headline posted to Facebook reads, “Tyler Perry paid off more than $430,000 in layaways ahead of Christmas.

Curious, I went to the comments section, where soon after I read, “We aren’t able to have Christmas this year due to some financial struggles.”

This was an honest, simple and sad comment: Honest and simple because of its vulnerability and sad, not because they are having financial difficulties, but sad because of what Christmas means to them.

This Christmas, many will buy gifts, put up decorations, buy matching or ugly sweaters and take cute photos—among other things—not because they want to, but because if they do not, the competitive and ego-driven self will give no rest in an attempt to measure up to the illusion we have made of Christmas.

The societal pressure is real.

However, while Christmas is a time of great joy and excitement for some, for others Christmas is a time of great anxiety and a desire for all of it to be over.

Entering into the bondage of Christmas

Since coming to America, I have struggled to feel like a father who is able to provide for his kids. This feeling usually is heightened with the coming of each American celebration.

This past Thanksgiving, my family sat around our empty table with no smell of turkey or ham. I felt I failed my daughter, who now knows what other tables are filled with at such times.

While I was harboring my inability to provide my family with a decent meal at Thanksgiving, I already was dreading the thought of being unable to buy a Christmas tree.

Further adding to the misery of this African father even before Thanksgiving was over, I was bombarded constantly by debates on the radio about when the Christmas tree should be put up—before or after Thanksgiving.

With no lights and no sounds around our house to remind us of the Christmas season, my kids and wife again will not unwrap presents.

I told Netanya, our 4-year-old, “Sorry, Baby, we cannot afford to buy a violin for you at Christmas.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “Santa will get it for me.”

The pressure in society is present in my household. If I could, I would do anything for my daughter to feel the joy of having her wishes met.

Entering into Christ’s liberation at Christmas

What if we have only $100 this Christmas? What will we feel, think and do?

If anything, rather than feeling that “for unto you [me] is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11), I feel a sense of being bound and enslaved by the pressure and expectation in society.

In the midst of this pressure, what if we pause and ask, “What does the weak, helpless and dependent baby have to do with the glamor and lights, the tree and the gifts, the spending and the waste?

The child was born to set us free, to save us, not so we will be enslaved to the tricks of greedy business cooperation’s, who—through their marketers—have created a messaging platform to appeal to our sense of pride, shame and desire for success.

We feel shame when we cannot afford to give things—even when they are not needed—and pride and a false sense of success when we can. We feel shame when our neighbor’s Christmas decorations seem more grandiose than ours and a false sense of pride and an illusion of success when we think our decorations are better.

When we think of the meaning of the Incarnation and embody the reality of it, we may approach Christmas differently.

We may come to ask, like Henri Nouwen in a journal entry he made on the eve of Christmas 1995, later published in Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year: “Where is God? God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless. How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence and power?”

Likewise, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal on Christmas Day 1962, “I am certain that where the Lord sees the small point of poverty and extenuation and helplessness to which the monk is reduced, the solitary and the man of tears, then he must come down and be born there in this anguish and make it constantly a point of infinite joy, a seed of peace in the world.”

Rather than giving into societal pressure this Christmas, what if—like Nouwen and Merton—we seek to be found where the helpless, poor and destitute are found? What if our gifts are to those who truly need a gift? What if we remember the refugees around the world and the malnourished kids dying in refugee camps in Nigeria and Yemen?

What if we seek to be “joy to the world” instead of just singing of it?

What if, instead of putting up the lights, we are the light?

“Unto us a child is born,” liberating us from bondage to a tradition promoting greed, covetousness and selfishness so that we can be the light.

Joseph Tobias is an international student pursuing a master of divinity at Logsdon Seminary. He also has a master of Christian ministry from Truett Seminary.

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