The other day, while browsing around on the Internet, I came across a dazzling little Nativity set — a Hummell creche. The starting bid was a mere $1,200.
I have friends who collect creches. They have some nice ones but tend to prefer the primitive versions — little figures from Third World countries who look as if they were hacked from cherry wood with nail clippers. I like those, too. But I'm also intrigued by the expensive ones. Something about the most humble scene in world history being depicted in gold, rubies and diamonds catches my eye. I don't see it as a contradiction. I see it as a comment on the way we mortals are.
We can't depict the glorious feelings we hold inside, so we try to symbolize those feelings with glorious stones, metals and workmanship. The richness of the material world is used to represent a rich inner life. Gold is a metaphor for grace and goodwill.
I think of the ornate churches of the world and all the lovely temples. At the heart of every cathedral you find a small box holding a tiny piece of bread — the Eucharist. The entire breathtaking building is simply an ornate bread box, designed to hold that slice of "the bread of life." And so it is with other religious shrines. The value of the gold and silver display how much we value the spirit.
We do the same thing when we give each other expensive gifts. We say, "I can never show your worth to me, but it's something like this diamond."
And all that is well and good — as long as the "outer" richness showcases an "inner" richness. The trouble starts when the two don't match up — when material worth takes on a life of its own. Outer wealth without the inner wealth quickly becomes crass materialism or, even worse, idolatry.
As for that Hummell creche I mentioned, I probably won't be bidding on it. I'm not a creche man. And I'd have to dance pretty fast to convince my wife that buying some thousand-dollar figurines is somehow spiritual. I think she prefers that my "worldly metaphors" for grace take on other forms — like cleaning up the patio.
Still, I don't think people should ever feel self-conscious about giving or receiving fine gifts, or about the grandeur of the church or temple where they worship, as long as they keep to the original intent of the builders. If gold remains simply a symbol for those golden, burnished feelings from the spiritual realm, we're on pretty solid ground.
When the gold becomes the focus, however, things go bad in a hurry.
I once memorized a little snippet of verse about material and spiritual values by Hilaire Belloc. It reads:
When Jesus Christ was 4 years old
The angels brought him toys of gold,
Which no man ever bought, or sold.
And yet, with these, he would not play
He made for him, small birds of clay.
And blessed them till they flew away.
As long as we keep thinking about those miraculous birds — our inner lives — and not dwell on those golden toys, finding the Christmas spirit in a Hummell creche, the Notre Dame cathedral or dazzling gifts from our loved ones shouldn't undermine the true message in the season.