The Irish Times on November 25th 2010, came with a 69 page Gift Guide entitled “It’s Christmas; TURN OVER FOR YOUR 68-page GIFT GUIDE,” The Guide carried advertisements for entertainment, cameras, iPhones, iPods, satellite navigation tools, toys, cosmetics, craft items, gardening implements, food, wine, clothes, sports apparel and a host of books, from Darragh O Shé’s Biography: My Story to The Wild Flowers of Ireland.
In all of the 69 pages there was not a single reference to the fact that the whole point of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ, whom Christians believe is Our Saviour. The Gift Guide did not mention a Crib or any other Christian symbol. In the book section there was not a single item on the Scriptures, the Infancy accounts in St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s Gospels or a book on the relevance of Christianity in today’s world. Dr. John Feehan’s Singing Heart of the Earth, on the relationship between science and religion, would make a wonderful Christmas present, particularly for young adults who might be searching for a sense of meaning in life. There was no mention of the Advent Wreathe, Handel’s Messiah, Christmas Carols or any poetry, painting and music associated with the Birth of Christ in different Christian cultures down through the ages. It is as if the compiler had airbrushed Christ out of Christmas, even though a majority of the paper’s readers and Irish people will attend a Christian Liturgy this Christmas.
The shop and consumer message of the Guide is a classic example of the chasm between many sections of the Irish media and the ordinary population. To be fair to The Irish Times, the paper does have a religious affairs correspondent and a weekly column entitled, “Rite and Reason.” A number of the columnists such as Breda O’Brien, John Waters and William Reville do, at times, explore the meaning of the Christian message for one’s personal well-being and wider culture and society.
I find it extraordinarily incongruous that the Feast of Christmas during which we celebrate the birth of the “one who has no where to lay his head,” has become the number one consumer event around the world. (Luke 9:58).
What, you might ask, is wrong with a consumption binge to celebrate Christmas? The world of advertising as reflected in the Guide tells us that possessing a vast number of goods, such as houses and cars gives the owner high standing in our consumerist culture. It believes that by increasing their levels of consumption, people will find a true pathway to personal happiness and fame. This is an illusion because the longings of the human heart are infinite.
On the other hand, for most religious traditions amassing wealth and giving priority to money over our relationships with other humans, the Earth community and God, has been associated with greed and selfishness.
In recent years there is a new, ecological critique of consumerism which we are only slowly beginning to take on board. According to Erik Assadourian, of the WorldWatch foundation in Washington DC. “Consumerism is like a tsunami which has engulfed human cultures and is degrading the Earth’s ecosystems. Left unaddressed, we risk global disaster.” In the annual WorldWatch Report for 2010, Assadourian wrote that, the growth in consumption in recent decades is staggering. There was a six-fold increase in consumption between the years 1960 and 2008. Globally the per capita levels of consumption tripled, helped along by sophisticated advertising from transnational corporations. If we want to prevent the collapse of our current civilization and the global life-systems, then we need to move quickly from a consumerist approach to life to one where we find meaning, identity and well-being in a new cultural framework centred on sustainability.
Religions, with their understanding of human well-being, are well placed to play a key role in developing sustainable cultures but, to date they have only been involved sporadically in linking the plight of the poor and planet to their core religious beliefs. They need much more effective policies and programmes to encourage their followers to opt for this new, more meaningful ways of living
In the past, the ascetic tradition of various religions seemed to be motivated by a denial of the value of this world. Today’s ascetical challenge must be based on our understanding of the finite nature of the earth and the realization that, the present consumerist way of living cannot be sustained, and is only made possible by massive injustice towards the poor of the world and by robbing future generations of their fair share of the resources of the planet.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI understood this connection and, for the past two decades, have called Catholics to a life of simplicity. In Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation (1990), the late Pope John Paul II wrote: “Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause … Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.”
Pope Benedict, in his World Day of Peace Message published on January 1st 2010, entitled, If You Want Peace, Protect Creation repeats the same message.
“It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-styles and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles.” (quoted from Centesimus Annus, no. 36). Our slogan, this Christmas and all the year round should be, “Enough is Enough.” Happy Christmas.
 Pope John Paul 11 1990, World Day of Peace Message, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation, no. 13.
 Pope Benedict XV1 2010, World Day of Peace Message, If You Want Peace, Protect Creation, no. 11.