The prime example of suffering during Christmas is that of a child who wakes to find no presents under the tree or who misses out on the gluttony of Grandma's Christmas feasts. From Salvation Army bell-ringers to uncountable signs urging us to donate toys for underprivileged families to churches delivering food baskets to the "less-privileged," the Christmas season, amongst other things, is a revolt against scarcity. It is to be a time of abundance, affluence, wealth and plenty.
It is easy to see how the spirit of this time of year can easily degenerate into impetuous consumer madness. Abundance and plenty can easily be misinterpreted or manipulated into the Christmas shopping fever that affects so many people. The publicity machines of corporations whose end-of year profit margins depend on the consumerism of the Christmas season have led us into believing that the privation of Christmas gifts is synonymous with dearth and that buying (mostly useless) things is the epitome of the Christmas spirit.
There are, however, many people who have begun to question this unbridled consumerism that characterizes the Christmas season. Pastors and priests rant about the danger of having the manger replaced by the shopping mall. Some grandmothers, reflecting perhaps on the simplicity of Christmases past where thrift and scarcity brought families closer together, suggest (often unsuccessfully) that it would be best to abandon gift-giving and to make Christmas simply a time of being together.
Nonetheless, the impulse to buy during this time of year is a strong one, and for those not as radical as many a grandmother, the revolt against Christmas consumerism isn't to put an end to it, but rather to expand it to include those who don't participate. Everywhere we are presented with opportunities to donate Barbie Dolls and GI Joes and to share Christmas hams to help others partake in the abundance of this time of year.
Though this may be an improvement over the simple consumer inclination to buy, buy, buy for one's self, is Christmas really about abundance and plenty?
Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation of God into our broken world. From our nativity scenes, we know that the Christ child was born in a manger surrounded by farm animals, shepherds and wise men, but very seldom do we consider the historical conditions and realities of that scene.
We don't like to recognize or think about the poverty associated with the birth of the baby Jesus, because Christmas is supposed to be a time of affluence and abundance. We don't like to consider the violence of empire characterized by Herod killing who knows how many children, because Christmas is a time of celebration and festivity. We overlook the historical poverty and oppression so obviously surrounding the birth of the Child we celebrate because it is uncomfortable and doesn't quite fit in with what we've made Christmas to be. Just as with Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, if the child Jesus was to come back to visit our Christmas celebrations today, many of us would affirm that Christmas no longer needs a child born into poverty and go great lengths to describe how that figure interferes with the "true" spirit of Christmas.
Very rarely do we consider that, perhaps, the Incarnation into poverty is filled with meaning and purpose. The child we celebrate as Emmanuel, God with us, was born into and chose to live a life of poverty. Indeed, the radical nature of the Incarnation can only be understood if it is not disassociated from the poverty it was born into. God chose to be incarnated into the reality of a poor family because the message of the Kingdom of God was directed towards the poor. Liberation theologian Mike Rivage-Seul affirms that the poor have a hermeneutical privilege over others. They understand the message of the Gospels better because it is told from their experience. The story of the Incarnation of God into the reality of a poor, peasant family forced into traveling due to an Imperial Decree is much better understood by those who can relate personally to that reality.
The martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero shared this sentiment when he said in one of his last Christmases that,
...no one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God, for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Oscar Romero would undoubtedly be considered a scrooge today because we fear poverty and that fear is exacerbated during this time of year. One indelible mark of North-American culture and mentality is our resistance to limits and our believed right to not go without, whatever the cost may be. Poverty is to be avoided and prevented. It is to be fought against (thus the war on poverty) and replaced with its antithesis, a society of affluence and abundance. But if the Incarnation into poverty has meaning and purpose, then perhaps our understanding of poverty is skewed.
Another Salvadoran martyr, Ignacio Ellacuría advocated for a civilization of poverty where,
...poverty would no longer be the privation of the necessary and fundamental needs due to the historic actions of certain social classes, but rather a universal state of affairs which guarantees the satisfaction of basic needs, the freedom of personal choices, and an environment of personal and community creativity that permits the emergence of new forms of life and culture, new relationships with nature, with others, with oneself, and with God.
Separating Christmas celebration from the historical reality of poverty that characterizes it disconnects the story from its true message. The Incarnation into poverty results from God's preferential option for those who suffer from the "privation of their necessary and fundamental needs." The Christmas message, then, should be an acknowledgement of the plight of the poor and of God's decision to side with them. Furthermore, Christmas should be a celebration of poverty because poverty opposes wealth, affluence and plenty. Ellacuría reversed the negative connotations associated with poverty by considering it an opportunity for the "emergence of better forms of life" which are hidden by the supposed superiority of the civilization of wealth.
Let this Christmas be, then, a celebration of poverty.