"The foundation of Christmas is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift, you've given me an obligation."
My wife's family has raved about Big Bang Theory for years, yet I had never invested the time into another 30-minute sitcom. However, when I recently stumbled on a re-run of a Christmas special, I was won over by the cynicism of Sheldon. Further, the lanky genius' commentary on "the foundation of Christmas" is not only comical, but also drips with pertinent theological claims. Sheldon and his fellow nerds are in the midst of their Wii bowling night, complete with button down shirts and alley-esque rental shoes, when their neighbor, Penny, drops in and asks if hey will be putting up a Christmas tree. Sheldon proceeds to explain why he does not celebrate "Saturnalia," the actual root of the Christmas tree tradition, only to be taken back when Penny thwarts his aversion to the holiday. That is, Penny has purchased and wrapped gifts for her neighbors.
Sheldon asks, "But why would you do such a thing?"
Sheldon refuses Penny's generosity and instead underscores her "silly neighbor presents" as attestation to Christmas "reciprocity," the foundation of seasonal anxiety and depression.
Again, "The foundation of Christmas is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift, you've given me an obligation."
I have mulled over these Big Bang remarks and have come up with three musings in response to Sheldon's "theology" and scoial commentary:
1. The intensity of Christmas consumption and related anxiety is indeed about as foreign to the Spirit of the season as Saturnalia. We have become a culture that grosses nearly 450 billion dollars in frivolous purchases, ranging from the aged Ferbies to diamonds, as-seen-on-t.v. white elephant gifts to dust collecting stocking stuffers. We set monetary limits on gifts and "spend" entire weekends trying to make sure we have made our obligatory purchases for someone who may or may not be getting us something for the holiday. And if we think for a moment that we are not a part of this oppressive cycle, maybe find it amusing "when it's not happening to us, " in an instant we are convicted and confess, "it's happening to us!" In this regard, Sheldon is right, this obligatory reciprocity consumes Christmas and results in something many of us may no longer want to celebrate.
2. We have great difficulty receiving free gifts of generosity and grace. We constantly respond to others no-strings-attached gifts with statements like, "you didn't have to," "but I didn't get you anything," or "you shouldn't have." We see the "L" sticker with our name on it and we respond not with gratitude and thanksgiving, rather lamentation over our inability to offer something in return. We are o.k. to be those who give charity, but hesitate to be recipients. We feel vulnerable and weak and so maybe begin to make our purchases in the year-to-come a little earlier so that we are the first to give, not out of love, but as players in competitive charity. Again, Sheldon, you are spot on.
3. Still more, I wonder if Sheldon's remarks are comic sketches of missional theology. In other words, maybe the foundation of Christmas is reciprocity. Maybe the incarnation is not only a free gift, but also an obligatory invitation. While we may be quite comfortable to sit as observers of Christmas pageants, listeners of the Christmas stories, hearers of Christmas sermons, and pew-sitters in sacred services, the advent of Christ is no diorama. Instead, the gift of God as Immanuel invites a human response. We not only gaze, but also and especially engage. We must move beyond observation and pursue participation. Said best, "we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). God's gift to us is an opportunity for us to give back in gratitude, as an act of worship that illustrates our love for the one who first loved us. Again, thank you Sheldon. Actually, Merry Christmas Sheldon.