If you had asked eight-year-old me what I loved most about Christmas, I would have quickly responded with “Presents, of course!” My ideal Christmas began early. My brother and I jumped from our beds at the crack of dawn to go see how many gifts were left for us under the tree. Our excitement building, we raced to enlist our sisters in the difficult task of waking our parents at an absurdly early hour. Gathering up the courage, the four of us barged into our parents’ room shouting, “Merry Christmas!”
As we tugged at our parents’ arms to get them out of bed, all we could think of were the new toys that we would soon unwrap. Would we get the Nintendo Wii we had asked for? What about the remote-control car I saw in the store? Would Grandma and Grandpa give us money like last year?
I certainly knew the real story of Christmas, but despite my parents’ best efforts, this played a minor role in my understanding of the day. Before opening any presents, our family would sit together and read the story of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Luke. We would discuss how Christmas was about Jesus being born and what it meant that he was the Messiah. We would even sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. I knew these things were important, but to eight-year-old Joel they seemed like detours slowing the journey to a Christmas that was ultimately about me.
I bring up this story not to poke fun at the brazen materialism of a younger me, but to highlight just how easy it can be to let possessions cloud our view of the Messiah. I was surrounded by many reminders of the true meaning of Christmas, but the allure of toys was strong. If we are honest, I think we will all admit that we may still feel that same pull. We may not be leaping from our beds to open presents, but our tendencies to find comfort in the things we own—reinforced by a commercialized Christmas culture—can easily distract us from making Christmas about the Christ.
The advent reading in Hebrews 10 gives us an account of believers holding loosely to their possessions because of their confidence in Christ. The example of these early Christians challenges us to follow Jesus in a way that directly confronts our tendencies to find comfort in our possessions.
In the tenth chapter, the writer’s teachings about Jesus as the high priest and the once-for-all sacrifice for sins reach a crescendo, and the result is a call to persevere in faith. While the writer warns readers about the danger of deliberate sin and the seriousness of the Christian call to holy living (vv. 26-31), the recipients of the letter are ultimately called to “remember those earlier days after [they] had received the light,” which provide the grounds for a confidence that should not be thrown away (vv. 32, 35).
What happened in those earlier days such that they could have confidence? Fortunately, the writer gives a record. Those early Christians “endured in a great conflict full of suffering…were publicly exposed to insult and persecution,” and “stood side by side with those who were so treated” (vv. 32-33). Most importantly for the topic at hand, they “joyfully accepted the confiscation of [their] property, because [they] knew that [they themselves] had better and lasting possessions” (v. 34).
Faced with the task of following Jesus in a world hostile to Him and His ways, these Christians were more than willing to part with their belongings, endure discomfort, and relinquish popularity. They were able to do so because they recognized the great riches found in Christ as better and more lasting than anything this world has to offer.
As we approach what is often a day centered around obtaining new possessions, I am praying that this example will be on my mind. Possessions may not be a problem in and of themselves, but I fear that even that sentiment itself is used far too often to justify ungodly materialism. The frustration I feel when an Amazon item takes longer than two days to arrive at my doorstep indicates as much. If we were as enamored with and devoted to Jesus as those early Christians, I imagine our approach to Christmas—and possessions in general—would look much different.
In this season of advent, let us learn from those early Christians and look to the better and lasting possessions that we have in Christ. If advent is to be a time of anticipation, then there is perhaps no better way to anticipate the return of the King than by reinforcing our trust in the norms of his kingdom. When we find confidence in the eternal riches that are found in him, rather than the fleeting possessions we have on this earth, then we are starting to truly understand the real meaning of Christmas.
Joel Byman ’21 was an Economics concentrator in Currier House. He is a first year MPhil student in Theology at Oxford University.