Filipino Christmas
and the Idea of a Lavish God

by Pastor Jun Gonzaga

Filipino Christmas

I believe it was Nick Joaquin who wrote of how lavish the Christian God is. He was responding to the criticism that Filipinos are lavish in their celebration of Christmas, to the point of almost selling-off their immediate future. We know of stories of families being indebted several months after Christmas because of lavish spending. Thus, most of us would agree with this criticism. But not Nick Joaquin. For him, it is but a reflection of the Christan God most Filipinos believe in.

Now, why did I think of Nick Joaquin? The Lord brought back Nick Joaquin's idea of a lavish God to mind when I was preparing a Christmas meditation for our Christmas party in the office. I don't remember in particular how he developed his thoughts about how lavish our Christian God is, but I'm sure that what he wrote is far more excellent reading. Mine just went like these:

  • God could have just announced His salvation in the heavens for all mankind to see; the Magi, after all, were able to observe the star, and people in Jesus' time were asking for a sign, anyway. But He didn't. Instead, He became man.
  • He could have just invaded planet earth as a full grown man, much like the whimsical Gods of the Greeks and the Avathars of the Hindu God. He could have done this with the full support of His heavenly host, as Jesus confided to Pilate about the enormous power he could have summoned, had he chosen to, but He didn't. Instead He decided to be born as a helpless baby.
  • He could have chosen to be born in the king's palace, much like the birth of the emperor's son, which by the way was the precursor of the good news. But again He didn't. Instead, He chose to be born to an ordinary couple, who are victims like us of the exigencies of their times. They had no choice but to travel back to Jerusalem in spite of the danger to both the mother and the child who was about to be born. Or was the birth premature?
  • The above alone would suffice as argument in favor of the lavish God of Nick Joaquin, but to top it all, the baby Jesus was born in a manger, all because "there was no room for them in the inn."

Some of the words listed as synonyms for lavish are immoderate, unrestrained, excessive. Talk about a lavish Christian God.

Our Lavish God

We usually frame this birth of the Messiah with the "agape" love of God the Father (John 3:16), or with the example of humility of the Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5-11) - or if you are the type who likes watching “Star Wars” cosmic scenario - with the rescue of the woman and her child from the cosmic dragon (Rev. 12:1-6). But these framing oftentimes glosses over the fact that the God we encounter and are reminded of in Christmas is a lavish God. They can make us think of sacrificial love, of servanthood, or even of the cosmic battle between good and evil, but they don't conjure up images of a lavish God. I would suggest another framing, and this, from the very words of Jesus:

    What is the point?

    I believe that as “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them saying, 'They will respect my son.' But those tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.” (Mark 12:1-8)

Now this is even beyond lavish! Sending your son to people who have not shown a modicum of gratitude, nor respect, whose wickedness seem to grow every oppurtune time they can despise you is beyond me. I used to think that if a person fools me, he should be ashamed. But if he fools me twice, I should be ashamed.

But this landowner-father seems to be foolishly shameless. He has been fooled many times, and yet he still sent his son! No wonder Nietsche didn't want to have anything to do with the Christian God. No wonder too that some feminist would think of this action of God as child abuse. It is either that, or it is the “love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19). Now we can understand why Paul have to pray for us believers to comprehend and know such kind of love of a lavish God.

And Now...To My Writer Friends

You see, I have been struggling even before Christmas with our family situation. Last October we moved into our little condo unit, which required drastic changes in our lifestyle as a family. One of the big changes is that we had to let go of our househelp since there is only enough room for us as a family. Thus, I had to bring my son to school early in the morning before I went to work. My daughter took care of his brother and brought him home from school, but then she decided to work.

As a temporary measure, I requested the househelp of my sister to fetch my son from school and bring him home. I was hoping that my wife or my daughter would come to their senses and take the responsibility. That meant that they would make adjustments in their work schedule, or resign if they didn't adjust. They don't need to work in the first place since my salary is sufficient. But neither of them budged. Meanwhile my relationship with my sister was becoming strained as her household was also affected. To top it all, work schedules and activities seemed to multiply as the year ended.

With a mixture of self-pity, being overwhelmed with work, and not knowing what to do, I opened up to my boss. I believe that it was with divine wisdom that she responded, “Pastor Jun you know what to do, CCT is willing to journey with you in your temporary predicament.” I realized right then that I just had to love my family and do whatever it takes to love them.

I can't fully explain what happened to me at that time. But I just felt a tremendous surge of freedom from within me. Suddenly everything seemed to fit. Everything seemed simple enough. I felt overwhelmed with joy that I cried shamelessly before my boss, and yes, in the presence of God as we prayed for each other.

Now I bring my son to school and also fetch him in the afternoon, leaving my work earlier. So far I am still doing it with joy. Now this is far from lavish love, but I know that I can look up to Him if I need to do more.
Christian writers this is what we should bring into our craft: our experience and knowledge of God's lavish love in His Son. This seems utterly simplistic. Perhaps. But would it not be wonderful that, guided by His lavish love, we can have that singleness of heart that can guide us on what to write and how to write?

In my whimsical romantic days Kahlil Gibran was a favorite. I can still remember his most quoted line, “Think not that you can guide the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, would guide your course.” And we have observed how passion can easily carry us through trials, and even writing projects. But we are not romantics, rather, we're bibical. What do you think would happen to us, if by a stroke of a miracle, the Lord answers Pauls prayer for us in Ephesians?

    “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that according to the riches of His glory, He may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through His Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth, and to know the Love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.”

The next verses would give us an idea of what could happen if that prayer is answered:

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