by Richard E. Helmer
My wife and I followed our Monday (my day off) routine early this Thanksgiving week and went out late morning, tucking our newborn daughter into her car seat. My wife and our son had earlier spied a nativity set at Macy’s, and we wanted to take advantage of a 50% off sale. We drove to the mall, and as we walked into Macy’s, I had the unexpectedly unnerving experience of walking into an alien landscape – what felt to me a spiritual desert of commercialism and materialism all dressed up for Christmas.
When a side mission became finding me a new pair of sunglasses (which I am notoriously good at losing) the lady behind the counter apologized that she couldn’t tell us where they were – it was her first day on the job, she said. Scrooge-like, my wife and I quietly but rather righteously groused that in a state where unemployment still is near 12% the clerk didn’t then have the gumption to get out from behind her little counter and walk with us to help us find what we were looking for.
The sunglasses turned out to be only feet away, but they were all designer pairs ranging from $60 on up. Suffering sticker shock, and knowing my penchant for leaving a trail of lost items behind me, I decided to get new sunglasses at Rite Aid instead. When we picked up the nativity scene with Jesus packed in bubble wrap and glowing Macy’s cardboard that implicitly said owning this set would make us a more faithful something (I’m not entirely sure what), my wife mentioned that our son wanted a star for the tree this year.
The two available tree stars started at $50, and one glowed various colors but had no suitable mount to attach it to the tree. We fussed at the packaging for a few moments to double-check the design in the midst of artificial greenery and oversize ornaments not really suited for our little two-bedroom, over-stuffed and -populated rental condo.
“Do we need it?” my wife finally asked.
“No,” I said flatly, she agreed, and we went to lunch.
One of my two undergraduate Western Civilization teachers remarked that shopping malls are today’s equivalent of the Medieval cathedral. I think he meant they are the Meccas of our society’s values and aspirations. I was spooked by wanting none of it for the first time I can ever remember. Whether it was the sparkling gold watch or the airbrushed photos of the scantily-clad and unnaturally shaped women, it all felt for the first time as though it had nothing to do with me. I could only see visions of the abused earth and the struggling working poor, and it all made me feel a bit sick. But then, here I am typing away on my iPad in a coffee shop. So I’m not off the Western capitalist hook just yet.
As I began this reflection on a day in which a congressional super committee confirmed only our government’s embarrassing dysfunction, I stumbled across a Los Angeles Times article that simply took my breath away. There was the familiar visage of Newt Gingrich, supposed champion of laissez-faire capitalism, the old “moral majority,” and the political right. With his rise now in the Republican primary race, he was espousing the idea that a new way to address poverty in this country was to put the children to work as janitors of their own schools.
Children are there to work, not learn, after all, right? It struck me that we apparently haven’t gutted the public school system enough. Why not then take the next step and put the children in charge of the classrooms and the school office? It was a bitter moment to wonder if then we might then use the salary savings to further reduce taxes on the wealthy. But surely Newt didn’t mean it to go this far. Or did he?
I found myself tumbling into deep memories of reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in high school and reflecting on a classic scene in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge two emaciated children, a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want.
He says to Scrooge, “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
When Scrooge asks if the two children have “no refuge, no resource,” the ghost quotes Scrooge’s own cold words back to him, “Are there no prisons, no workhouses?”
As our huge capitalist enterprise enters its high season and a serious, purportedly Christian-aligned politician is espousing potentially turning our schools into workhouses, where is the Gospel?
I am reminded of a reading recently in the Daily Office, where Jesus, not unlike the Ghost of Christmas Present, points to a child as an example. In these days of political madness, widespread struggle, commercial frenzy, and holiday stress, his words are for me like balm to an open wound in our common body:
Calling to him a child, Jesus put him in the midst of the disciples, and said, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18 NRSV)
My newborn daughter slept through much of whole adventure of Macy’s, lunch, Gingrich, and her Dad’s head-splitting political-spiritual excursion. As Jesus’ says elsewhere in the Gospels, hers was the better part.
May we not lose even one of these little ones.
The Rev. Br. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif., and a novice in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs at Caught by the Light.