If you asked me as a child what I liked most about Christmas, and I had answered honestly, I would have said this: “Presents”.
If you ask me as an adult what I like most about Christmas, it is the joy of seeing my son’s excitement at the magical magic of it all, and something about the smell of pine and twinkly lights, but ‘presents’ is still in my top three.
I love the giving of presents, thinking about that person for a few weeks beforehand, shopping online, choosing the right thing, hugging the secret. I love the receiving of presents (as a child, I liked surprises; these days, I like making wish lists.) I receive them each present as a token of love. I love Christmas, and I love presents.
But this year, there is a subtle shift in how I am feeling about Christmas presents, and it’s St Francis’ fault.
Recently I read an absolutely brilliant biography of St Francis of Assisi – When Saint Francis Saved the Church by Jon M Sweeney.
St Francis was neither a monk nor priest, and he travelled around with a band of followers; the ‘Robin Hood’ of the church, if you will. One of his distinctive values was extolling the ‘virtue’ of poverty. In an age where the church was storing up riches and making beautiful frescoes, St Francis’ existence was a challenge to Christian greed, and 800 years later, he’s challenging mine.
St Francis refused to let his friars even own their own prayer book. They didn’t like this, and neither would I, but he was insistent that they owned nothing of their own. It sounds foreign to us now, but when you read the gospels and consider Jesus’ commands to his disciples that they take nothing with them and rely on others’ hospitality, one wonders if there’s something in it. As Sweeney points out:
“If you read the Gospels and take the teachings of Jesus literally, Francis stands out as one of the only people we can clearly observe in history who was a true follower of Christ.”
Don’t get me wrong here: I am not St Francis, and I don’t think that owning things is a sin, nor do I think present-exchanging at Christmas is wrong in and of itself. It’s a great tradition, a tangible way of expressing gratitude and friendship. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, points out that for some people present-giving is their love language, the principal way they receive and express love. I have no wish to shame anyone for enjoying Christmas presents. We honour people by giving them special gifts, and Jesus received an expensive gift of perfume from Mary Magdalene with gratitude, not condemnation.
However, especially if we are rich, as I am*, present-giving can trespass all too easily onto less holy territory. You can usually tell when this has happened by how you feel on Christmas Day after unwrapping presents: if you feel slightly sick as you survey your haul, or if you feel a burning ingratitude (“these presents are all very well, but WHY didn’t they get me what I really WANTED?”) then it is probably a sign that you have been overtaken by the greed monster.
We live in a big vicarage, with nice furniture and huge wardrobes full of clothes. I have a stack of twenty books on my ‘to read’ shelf, which is roughly the same number I started the year with, and yet every time I see a new book everyone’s talking about I want to read it. We have stuff, and more besides.
It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Sweeney** says that St Francis wanted to discover “what it was about complete poverty that provides an easier path to knowing God.” I am full, overfull, with material blessings, and yet I want more. Every time I look at a catalogue for present ideas for other people (which naturally turns into a list of things you might like for yourself), I feel like I am stuffing after-dinner mints into my face after a very large meal. I am wondering: do the possessions we own turn us into bloated Christians? I am slim in body, but obese in possessions – and I wonder what subtle effect this has on my spiritual life.
My friend is preparing to move, and is stripping down her possessions, selling things on eBay, giving clothes to charity, shredding old bank statements. I am a hoarder, and just hearing her describe her actions makes me feel sweaty and anxious. I like and look after my things, but sometimes I like them too much.
There is a proverb – give me neither poverty nor riches (Prov 30:8). The panic of poverty is not to be envied, but more insidious is the encroachment of riches. I am flicking through the catalogues, and hearing my heart whisper, “if I have this, then I will be a little bit happier.” I know it to be a lie, and yet I keep listening to it, even as the nausea grows.
I need people like D L Mayfield in my life who advocates ‘downward mobility’.
I need Esther Emery in my life, who lives in a yurt in the middle of nowhere, and powers her washing machine with a bicycle.
I need our new youth worker in my life, who is from India, and explains to my little boy that where he’s from they mainly just play with toy cars and make their own games.
I need St Francis in my life, kicking my butt from the grave.
I am feeling the discomfort that comes from God speaking into an area I would rather leave unexposed.
In an age of accumulation, sometimes we need to be stripped. This Christmas, I am praying for the attitude of St Francis: an uncluttered heart, a generous and light spirit.
*have you noticed how no one admits to being rich? We want to pretend we’re not – not really, not compared to Bill Gates or that person who lives up the road who has more money than us. We want to identify with the beleaguered poor rather than the comfortable rich. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
**I can heartily recommend the Sweeney’s biography of St Francis as a quick, thoroughly enjoyable, and thought-provoking read. If it’s not too ironic for me to say, it would make a wonderful Christmas present… Get it from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com (NB contains affiliate links: helps this site at no extra cost to you). I’ll be reviewing this at the end of November.
[tweetit]”In an age of accumulation, sometimes we need to be stripped.” – @Tanya_Marlow [/tweetit]
[tweetit]“Do the possessions we own turn us into bloated Christians?” @Tanya_Marlow. When St Francis of Assisi kicks your butt[/tweetit]
[tweetit]” I am full, overfull, with material blessings, and yet I want more.” – @Tanya_Marlow[/tweetit]
[tweetit]”I need St Francis in my life, kicking my butt from the grave.” – @Tanya_Marlow on Christmas presents:[/tweetit]
[tweetit]‘I flick through the catalogues, and hear my heart whisper, “if I have this, then I will be a little bit happier.”’[/tweetit]
[tweetit]Are you a hoarder or a minimalist? – @Tanya_Marlow on Christmas presents: When St Francis of Assisi kicks your butt[/tweetit]
Over to you:
- Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?
- How do you walk that line of loving to receive and give Christmas presents well, without greed taking over?