In many ways, the gospel of anti-consumerism is not the tough sell it used to be. More and more of us recognize that decades of unchecked patterns of shopping and overspending are unsustainable, unethical, unreasonable, and ultimately joyless.

The economic recession has contributed to this realization, of course. There’s nothing like a lack of funds to spoil the fun of a trip to the mall or to put a “bah humbug” on any number of beloved rituals of the consuming life.

But other, more positive forces have had an impact, too. For several years now, The Heifer Project has opened eyes and imaginations to new and profound ways of holiday gift-giving. More recently, The Advent Conspiracy has challenged Christians to “worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.” You can buy a book and a DVD about it. (Can a cool tee-shirt be far behind?) Which goes to show how the best efforts at thwarting  consumerism cannot completely avoid the lure of the commodity culture.

As many of us settle into new habits of spending, shopping, and gift-giving, it’s worth remembering that the Christmas season we’re about to enter (we’ve been in Advent all this time; Christmas is just beginning!), is about as “material” as it gets. It is about flesh and blood and birth and danger; it is about the “stuff” of poverty: physical hunger, homelessness, teenage motherhood, political oppression, refugees on the run.

Sentimental images of the Nativity can obscure the messy materiality of the Incarnation. We like the quiet, docile, submissive Mary, shrouded in blue, bathed in a halo of golden light, piously kneeling at the side of the cradle (and she’s just given birth — what a trooper!).

Have we already forgotten the Mary of the Magnificat — strong, defiant, outrageously political:  He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Sentimentality is easy, and easily consumable: we want a Christmas that makes us feel warm inside but asks nothing of us. The materiality of Bethlehem, on the other hand, and that of Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Golgotha calls us to a life lived in solidarity with all those who, here and now, know something of the stuff of poverty, and in whom the Lord of Hosts, the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us, is pleased to dwell.