Life is not about possessions


By Frank Wessling

With Halloween merchandizing out of the way, stores will now enter full Christmas sales mode. The coming feast, still seven weeks away, means for some of us a celebration of religious faith. At the same time, all around us in the public air we will meet a different festival. This one mixes sacred and profane in what might be called the perfect storm whipped up by the god of commerce.

It’s the time of year when the health of our economy requires us to spend money. That’s all; just spend it, put it out there in circulation. Spend it on as much quality as we can afford, but spend.

The good life in a 21st century capitalist society demands this of us.

This is not simply a rant against the commercializing of Christmas, although the temptation is strong. As a society we have corrupted the celebration of this memorial. Its “spirit” is now associated with a jolly veneer of cheer covering the bustle of business, not the enduring quiet spirit of self-giving love that links human and divine.


That spirit came to us in Jesus, whose birth we try to commemorate next month with gift-giving. It’s a struggle to get through the weeks leading to Christmas in a thoughtful way that holds onto such a spirit. We can be led around easily by advertising, simply doing what we’re told by hawkers of the latest fads and wake up on Dec. 25 feeling strangely empty in the midst of boxes, bags and wrapping paper.

To help readers of The Catholic Messenger avoid such desolation, here are a few thoughts from other sources offered for guidance and warning.

“Is there any happier or surer way to grow in love than simply to consider the gifts — and the giving of self through those gifts — of one who loves us?”

That comment comes from Father Timothy Gallagher, OMV, in his book, The Examen Prayer, a detailed explanation of the way St. Ignatius Loyola suggests we will find God “in all things” at all times. In the comment above, he is asking the reader to see gift all around. And when the humble person is open in this way, there is greater opening to seeing love — or the gift of self — in the gift.

The model giver of self through the gifts of life is God. What we hope to do at Christmas is imitate the model. We can make this happen, we can communicate the gift of love, even through the commercial frenzy of “shopping season,” but it requires careful thought, even prayerful thought.

It can be expressed well through the making rather than buying of gifts: consider the difference between receiving a hand-made card or a Hallmark product from a child; or a home baked cherry pie over a store-bought shirt. We may not be able to put ourselves personally into every gift, but we can try to put loving thought into whatever gift we choose in a store.

As warning against thoughtless or excessive spending, consider what Pope Benedict XVI has said. In December of 2007 he asked us to watch out for a “materialistic mentality (in) the way of living out and perceiving Christmas.” He particularly warned adults against leading children down the “dead-end streets of consumerism.”

Pope John Paul II also had a problem with so much emphasis on buying and having material goods. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, he condemned a lifestyle which “maintains a persistent orientation toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being.’”

And of course there is always the word of God in Jesus: “He said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

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