Reflection: ‘Luxury Shame’ and the Meaning of Christmas


Deacon Keith Fournier

  Catholic Online

As we enter into these last days of preparation for the Birth of Jesus Christ let us say “yes” to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to conversion.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - I am a fan of Joni Mitchell. I have been since my days as a young hippie searching for meaning in life. She always had a way of touching me with her unique voice. Her lyrics captured the great ironies of the age. On Nov 7, 2008 Joni Mitchell turned 65 yrs old. Her songs still find their way into my CD player on long trips. The words still speak to me, like these from “Woman of Heart and Mind” where she asked, “All this talk about holiness now. It must be the start of the latest style. Is it all books and words…? Or do you really feel it? Do you really laugh? Do you really care? Do you really smile, when you smile?” She wrote concerning the search for spirituality in the early 1970’s and questioned whether it was genuine or a style.

I was reminded of those questions recently. There have been a number of articles written on, of all things, greed. On November 29, 2008 Newsweek magazine published an article “Luxury Shame: Why even the very rich are cutting back on conspicuous consumption” by Johnnie L. Roberts. The premise was that the super wealthy in our midst are less inclined to flaunt their wealth while so many are suffering in the current economic collapse. The writer called the phenomenon “Luxury Shame” writing: “Across America's upper strata, rich folk… are experiencing an unfamiliar emotion: luxury shame… But in these recessionary times, it seems vulgar to flaunt one's luxurious lifestyle.”

The author chronicled the pullback in “conspicuous consumption”, quoting reasons given by those he interviewed for this change in expression. He showed his own doubt about the lasting nature of this phenomenon however, opining “Calling this the Death of Luxury would be a grand embellishment. Consumers have taken a respite from opulence before—for example, when the Greed-is-Good era died with the '87 market crash, and after 9/11—only to shop with a vengeance after a respectable amount of time had passed.”

It seems that the news of our economic crisis in America and the West only gets more serious. The disclosure of the fraudulent behavior of Bernard L Madoff, the former Chairman of NASDAQ, and his investment “Ponzi” scheme is a case in point. Many charities and educational institutions relied heavily on the integrity of his words and the depth of his alleged experience. Unfortunately, he lied and deceived them all with a smile and a wink. Now, some charities are being forced to close their doors. He has admitted that he defrauded clients of over 50 billion dollars. Arrested on December 11, 2008, he is charged with securities fraud. No-one knows the extent of the fallout of his colossal act of greed.

Like the question Joni Mitchell asked of the claims of holiness which arose out of the spiritualities of the early 70’s, we must ask in our day what this “luxury shame” really reveals. Does it reflect that we are recovering a proper understanding of our relationship to the goods of the earth or of our own obligations of stewardship? Or, even more importantly, are we embracing our obligations to one another in solidarity, to be our brother’s (and sisters) keeper as the President Elect so often called for in his campaign even while he himself failed to hear the cry of children in the womb, the poorest of the poor? Or is this, like Joni Mitchell so astutely observed, just a new “style” in our day? Are we simply acting as though we place persons over property and value one another more than our own self interests while we continue our self centeredness?

Wednesday, many Christians began an eight day period of intense preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord on December 25th. Pope Benedict XVI spoke to 5,000 pilgrims in Rome at his General Audience and told them that this current economic crisis presents an invitation to deeper conversion of life. It “can become an opportunity and a stimulus” to free our celebration of the gift of God in His Son which we celebrate on Christmas from the “accumulations of consumerism”. "Even non-believers", he said, "perceive something extraordinary and transcendental, something intimate that touches our hearts in this yearly Christian event. It is the festivity that sings of the gift of life. The birth of a child should always be a joyful occurrence".

"Christmas is the encounter with a new-born baby…Contemplating Him in this crèche how can we not think of all the children who still today, in many regions of the world, are born amidst such poverty? How can we not think of those newborns who have been rejected, not welcomed, those who do not survive because of a lack of care and attention? How can we not think of the families who desire the joy of a child and do not have this hope fulfilled?"

"Unfortunately, under the drive of a hedonist consumerism Christmas runs the risk of losing its spiritual meaning, reduced to a mere commercial occasion to buy and exchange gifts. Actually, however, the difficulties, uncertainty, and the economic crisis that many families are living in these months, and which affects all humanity, can truly serve as a stimulus for rediscovering the warmth of the simplicity, friendship, and solidarity that are the typical values of Christmas. Stripped of its materialist and consumerist trappings, Christmas can become the opportunity to welcome, as a personal gift, the message of hope that emanates from the mystery of Christ's birth".

The Holy Father continued "God reveals Himself to us as a poor 'infant' in order to conquer our pride. ... He made Himself small in order to free us from the human delusion of grandeur that arises from pride; He freely became flesh so that we might be truly free, free to love Him".

"Christmas", the Pope concluded, "is the privileged opportunity to contemplate the meaning and value of our existence. The nearness of this solemnity helps us to reflect, on the one hand, on the dramatic nature of a history in which human beings, wounded by sin, are perennially seeking happiness and a reason for living and dying; on the other hand, it exhorts us to contemplate the merciful goodness of God, who has come to meet humanity that He might communicate the saving Truth to us directly and make us to participate in His friendship and His life".

As we enter into these last days of preparation for the Birth of Jesus Christ let us say “yes” to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to conversion. Let us reject the “accumulations of consumerism” and open out hearts, our lives and our homes to Jesus Christ. Let us ask Him for the grace to truly love one another. He alone can change us within and make us truly capable of this kind of love. He alone can free us from the disordered appetites which lead to inordinate desires for “stuff”. He alone can open our eyes to see the real gift we have in His Birth and in one another, no matter how bad these economic times become.