Hedonism is the philosophy which makes pleasure-seeking the main point of life.
Everything is about trying to feel good and pursuing anything that promises us pleasure and enjoyment. This may sound like Scrooge, the Charles Dickens character from A Christmas Carol, but Christmas can play into the hedonism dictated by our cultural environment. The people of the world, for the most part, love Christmas. The reasons are not entirely right, but neither are they entirely wrong.
The retail trade loves Christmas and the reason for that is obvious. For families, Christmas means enjoying time together, even though unrealistic expectations can lead to deep disappointment. In our efforts to make the holiday season a perfect time for friends and family we can become over-stressed and even break under the pressure. Our desire to have “a perfect Christmas” can easily degenerate into unrealistic demands on ourselves and others.
Some will be dreading this Christmas, the first one since losing a loved one, the intensifying of the loneliness barely absent all year but unforgettably apparent on 25th December. For too many, it is an annual reminder of the living hell that was their childhood experience.
For one of my friends, every Christmas is a painful recollection of the shattered dreams of childhood. However nice and enjoyable his present-day family may be, he still carries within him the memory of a violent and drunken father returning home to beat his wife and children. He can describe the colour of the wallpaper stained with lovingly home-made Christmas pudding.
We cannot underestimate the depth of the work of the Holy Spirit needed for people with painful childhood experiences. How can someone come to know God as Father when that word carries such deeply-embedded memories of pain and rejection? What does love mean to any of us, if we take our cue from the world at large or our own imperfect human experiences? Even the very best of earthly fatherly or parental love falls short of God’s holy, giving and forgiving love. Perhaps that’s why we struggle at times in our relationships with God and others.
It is important to be aware of the picture of God we carry in our hearts and try to correct any false ideas by drawing of the pure revelation of God himself.
When we pray, how are we thinking about God? Is he a distant figure, absent and unapproachable? Is he a stern judge whose anger is only-just-contained and likely to erupt at any moment? We try to get away from impressions of a God like that. But is one of this generation’s favourite ways of looking at God also in grave danger of misrepresenting him?
We like to think of God as more centred on our needs. If he really loves us, then he is surely always going to be there for us. He comes to us loaded with gifts and benefits to take away our pain and give us his sack of prepared, gift-wrapped blessing, pressed down and overflowing with good things. God is good, and we must never forget that, but he is not a soft, indulgent Father. He is no Papa Gateau. This French expression helps us identify a totally wrong impression of our glorious, powerful, righteous Heavenly Father – an impression that can easily be imported from the pleasure-seeking, self-centred spirit of our age.
The image of an all indulgent Father is as far removed from the reality of who God is as the other extreme of an angry withholding God. One of my friends in France speaks of his father as being somewhat of a Papa Gateau. After long absences his father often returned home laden with gifts and indulging his children with every imaginable treat for the short duration of his stay. No discipline, no correction, only indulgence. This is not love.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves that the greatest gift we can give our children, even at Christmas, is the gift of ourselves, the gift of our presence. Indulging our kids with gifts and spoiling them cannot define good parenting. Fatherhood involves saying no. Merely loading our children with blessings and benefits stunts the growth of their character. It shows no concern for their long-term well-being. Focussing only on immediate gratification is not what love is all about. God is good, and we must never forget that, but he is not a soft, indulgent Father. He is no Papa Gateau.
If there is a danger that this can happen in the home, is there not also a corresponding spiritual danger? We can begin to think that God is our Papa Gateau and become spiritual spoiled brats, always demanding something more from him without ever wanting to really get to know him for himself. The picture here is of a child sitting on Santa’s knee telling him what he or she wants for Christmas – no relationship, only expectation of receiving a gift. This can have a welcome place in a child’s upbringing, but imagine growing up thinking that God was always like that. We could easily become more interested in his presents than in his presence.
That is why we should develop a passion to get to know God, more than a passion to get what we want from him. We should never come before God simply to ask him for things – no matter how spiritual our prayer requests appear to be. Jesus taught the art of relational prayer, not just how to petition God effectively. The Lord’s Prayer begins with relationship – “Our Father”. It continues with a reminder of just who he is. He is the Father of glory, the sovereign ruler of the universe, the one for whom are all things and by whom are all things. He is the Alpha and the Omega. Once we realise this we approach God in wonder and astonishment. The Lord of heaven and earth is our Father. We are related to him. And he loves us and wants the very best for us. But he does not indulge our every whim or desire.
Above all, Christmas is a reminder of the other-centred love which is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Seeing God as our loving, heavenly Father means that we never miss out, at least, not in the long term. He is working out all things according to his plan and purpose. And he invites us to become part of his story. The story began to be told centuries before Christ came, but it took a decisive turn when he came into this world to sit where we sit and live a life in the reality of the brokenness of our earthly existence. This love is not indulgent, but it is redemptive. He certainly did not come with a Papa Gateau kind of love providing immediate gratification. But he did solve the real problem in our hearts and the deepest problem of humanity.
Jesus bridged the gap between the Holy God and sinful people. He brought the fullest revelation of the nature and character of God – the God who is holy, just and loving. And he solved once and for all the sin problem. Why? So that we can have all our human desires instantly filled? Or, was it rather that we should come to know God, worship him and grow to love him above all else?
Christmas is a time of celebration, of enjoying whatever good things God has given us. The joy is multiplied as we share these good things with others. But above all it is a reminder of the other centred love which is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The kind of love which does not merely indulge us, but invites us into his family. The kind of love which draws us closer to himself, and to each other.