It’s easy to step back and denounce the excesses of the Christmas season: the orgy of spending, too much food, too much drink, too many parties, and expensive ski vacations that bring aching credit card hangovers. Easy, but mistaken.
I’m not in favor of spending a lot to finance fantasies of Christmas perfection, nor do I endorse the sort of gluttony and the psychological overload of “special moments” that makes us feel as though Christmas is a celebratory marathon to recover from rather than savor. Yet, the basic impulse toward excess is not wrongheaded. In fact, given the theological meaning of Christmas, it’s altogether fitting in its way.
Think about it. The incarnate Son of God is light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, and of one substance with the Father. God himself comes to us in the newly born child. Mary’s womb, a human vessel of life, has been made full, and not just with a new life, but with the very source of light and life (John 1:4). This, surely, is an excess beyond all excesses. God goes on a redemptive bender, as it were.
Therefore, scolds who too quickly condemn the excesses of Christmas make the wrong spiritual point. Yes, the gospel stories evoke the humility of the young Mary, as well as the stark, rustic simplicity of the stable in Bethlehem. But this poverty stands in contrast to the true significance of the birth of Christ. Mary’s humility is noteworthy because all generations will call her blessed, for as her cousin Elizabeth proclaims, she is theotokos, mother of God (Lk 1:42–3), and the earthiness of the nativity scene magnifies the wonder of the one who is actually born.
So we need to be clear about the limitations of our Christmas festivities. It’s not that they go too far. Instead, they don’t (and of course can’t) go far enough. The big feasts and expensive presents are impoverished in comparison to what God gives us in Christ, which is always more, incalculable more. “I have come,” says Jesus of to us all, lost as we are amidst the thieves and robbers of our own sin, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The scolds, however, are not altogether mistaken. With the Incarnation, the divine gift of God himself comes in a singular, concentrated form rather than in a vast array of goodies. The Christian theological tradition calls this singularity the scandal of particularity, a mode of generosity that works very differently than does our usual approach.
Our common conception of a generous friend is one who lavishes upon us many gifts. We think generosity involves adding more and more in what I call a that-as-well-as-this approach rather than a very different kind of abundance, one that involves the concentration or intensification of one good, a this-even-more approach.
By and large, our metaphysical imaginations mirror our festive sensibilities, and we tend to think that divine abundance entails a vast and expansive universality, a that-as-well-as this approach. If God truly loves humanity, this way of thinking presumes, then he’d saturate the world with his presence, making himself available to everyone in and through the diversity of human experience. Like a rich relative or generous host, God should have lots of presents for everyone and a big feast with many courses for all the guests.
God does not give himself to us by assembling the good things of life into a giant banquet. Instead, we get Jesus, the infant child, who is God incarnate. God gives himself lavishly and without reserve, but in one and only one present, as it were, not serially, not variously, not like a multi-course dinner spread out over many tables.
Love works by way of concentration, as the calling of Abraham indicates. Before Abraham, God gave his cleansing righteousness to the world in plenary form—as in the time of Noah, when the rain fell on everyone. Yet at the story of the flood teaches us, we cannot receive God’s blessings in this universal form. On the contrary, like an elaborate dinner that bloats us, or an excess of wine that makes us sick, the plenary universality that we too often confuse with the excesses of love tends to drown us. Indeed, that’s the problem with the tendency of a that-as-well-as-this approach to pile on more and more on the trajectory toward universality. As the ancient philosopher Plotinus recognized (and celebrated), the sort of abundance absorbs and submerges us.
To love is to focus and concentrate oneself. Instead of an abundance that involves fantasies of expansive enjoyment, love involves the concentrating excess of the this-even-more approach. So God makes a covenant with one man, Abraham. On Mount Sinai, God gives the Law that deepens his covenant with Abraham’s progeny.
As the New Testament teaches, Christ does not change, abrogate, set aside, or add to this covenant. Instead, he fulfills it on the cross, the ultimate this-even-more expression of generosity. The cross is the incarnate Son of God’s singular embrace of love (an “everlasting covenant” as the book of Genesis puts it), powerful enough to draw to himself all people, and so profoundly weighted with divine purpose that nothing, not even the power of sin and death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:35–39).
We need to keep in mind the scandal of particularity during our Christmas celebrations. Don’t shun the spirit of excess at Christmas. It’s fitting in its way. But try to let your experiences of abundance point you toward the this-even-more approach of divine love rather than the that-as-well-as-this approach that feeds our fantasies of somehow enjoying an expansive universality. All the presents, the good times, and the good meals—think of them concentrated into one single and particular gift: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.