"Now, as an honour to Christ, we have taken away the manger made of clay, and replaced it with a crib of silver.''
That was St Jerome's complaint, preaching on Christmas Day in Bethlehem at the turn of the fifth century. The "good old days'' in all their purity never, perhaps, existed, For centuries pilgrims, to the sharp-eyed salesman, have been customers, and the pilgrims themselves have willingly paid for gifts to display their devotion. Yet Jerome's fears that God's service will be compromised by Mammon have echoed down the centuries to remind us to remain a little uneasy; to listen to the quiet voice that asks, "Is this really what it's all about?"
Curiously, in recent years, we have begun to hear the opposite complaint: that Christmas has not been commercialised enough, that spending on presents is falling. A sign, perhaps, that public as well as private allegiance is transferring itself from God to Mammon. The quiet voice of unease is being lulled gently to sleep.
The most famous of Christmas presents were the first, the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the wise men. Costly gifts, which would hardly have passed Jerome's test of simplicity. A splash of regal colour to illuminate the shabby poverty of the stable. In the eastern Church in particular, the coming of the wise men has been celebrated as the climax of Christmas; the moment at which Christ was revealed to the rest of the world.
What mattered about these gifts was not what they cost, but what they signified. St Augustine made an interesting observation, that they were the sort of gifts that pagan worshippers would naturally have dedicated to their own gods ("idols", in Augustine's eyes). Yet by using them to honour the true God, the magi turned them into something of true value. Christian tradition has interpreted these gifts primarily as symbols: "He received incense as a God, gold as a king, myrrh as someone destined to die,for his burial'', as Augustine explained. The entire Christian mystery is summarised in the offerings of the three wise men.
What, then, do our own Christmas gifts mean? The puritan, or cynic, might argue that our spending is driven by competitive greed, or the fear of being undervalued. But there is a kinder interpretation: our deepest motive is usually ordinary everyday affection for family and friends. "What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?'' (Luke xi, 11).
Of Christians, of course, more is asked than parental love alone. "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me'' (Matthew xxv, 40). And so, our Christmas giving overflows to those in need, as we send extradonations to charities, or lend our time to providing a little cheer for the lonely or homeless. Helping the poor: might seem a little closer to the central meaning of the crib at Bethlehem.
But still we have not penetrated the heart of it. We are still thinking of our own giving. Yet "in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us" (1 John iv, 10). We give because first we received. It is a theme as old as Deuteronomy: "as the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him" (Deuteronomy xv, 14). For Christians, the consummation of God's gifts was the gift of himself in his Son, on the first Christmas.
This is the proper context for fears about commercialising Christmas. The poverty of the stable will indeed remind us of the many whose needs are more serious than expensive toys or chocolates. But to contemplate the incarnation of God is to face the charge not so much of injustice, as of sheer absurdity. If this is true, then all our frantic spending has simply missed the point. Our own idols are not pagan gods; they are profits, possessions, even families and friends - unless these are offered, like the magi's gold, to God. But if they are used, and given, and loved, out of love for the God who first loved us, they too can be things of great value.