According to Deloitte's 2018 Annual Retail Survey, American households will spend an average of $1536 on the holidays, up from $1,226 last year. Their analysts say American's are bullish on the economy. Altogether, we'll spend over $1.1 trillion in holiday-related retail sales, which includes food, beverages and gifts.
Of course, family gatherings with gifts under the tree and office parties are part of the Christmas tradition but the wrapping paper littered all over the living room floor on Christmas morning reminds us that our deepest need didn't come from Amazon. And as good as the holiday buffet the night before might have been, it only temporarily satisfied us if it didn't give us heartburn.
Don't mistake me for the Grinch. I'm in favor of holiday celebrations, so long as we don't confuse material gifts, however well-intended, to meet our deepest spiritual longings. After all, the heart of what we're supposedly celebrating is a deeply spiritual event.
Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday we easily forget that the real gift of Christmas is God breaking into history as a human being to save people from their sins. Its summarized in the story of His creatures gone astray and lost but a shepherd-king coming to rescue them. A poor teenage girl named Mary, a virgin nonetheless, gave birth to the Savior in a stable in Bethlehem. It takes the faith of a child to believe such a simple story and it takes humility to receive this gift of God's Son sent to save us.
Humility is a much needed virtue in our bitterly divided, hyper-political world which often seems on the verge of civil meltdown. Both sides justify beating down their fellow man in order to win an argument or score political points. And too many, look for political solutions to spiritual problems.
The Israelites were much the same 2000 years ago. They looked for a political solution to the Roman occupation of their homeland and envisioned a conquerer riding in on a white horse and throwing off Rome's iron boot from her neck. Instead, they got a better conquerer, one who would deliver every soul from its deepest oppression.
It's obvious there is much wrong and oppression in the world today. It only takes a cursory review of major news stories from 2018 to see that. Perhaps this is why Merriam-Webster's word of the year is "justice." It was one of the most reviewed words in Internet searches. And why not? The #MeToo movement, Brett Kavanaugh's SCOTUS confirmation hearings, and the Russian 2016 election-meddling probe leave many wondering what justice means. So how is all this related to Christmas?
Every human heart longs for the things wrong with the world to be set right. Violence, sexual harassment, political corruption—all of it needs to be made right. In other words, we want justice and peace.
This is what the central figure of the Christmas story brought us. The carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" beautifully puts music and words to this truth: "O come, desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind / Bid Thou our sad divisions cease And be Thyself our King of peace. / Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel"
We need Emmanuel, which means God with us, more than we realize. The presents are good. But Jesus' presence and the healing and goodness he brings is even better. This is the true gift of Christmas.