Let it be known that I love hearing the music from Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown as much as the next guy. I just don’t enjoy hearing it on October 30th…or on November 3rd…or anytime pre-Thanksgiving, really.
Each year the Christmas decorations seem to be displayed earlier and earlier. I walked by one department store before Halloween—before Halloween—and saw a Christmas tree and lights on sale. I feel like a Scrooge at times, complaining about the premature appearance of joyful Christmas trees, holiday cheer, and Buddy the Elf, so I talked it out with Jackie to try and pinpoint the source of my irritability.
“Well,” she replied, “it leaves no room for Advent.”
Bam. Thanks, honey. Christmas is more omnipresent than ever, and yet the purpose of the season—Jesus Christ—is nowhere to be found. The surge of holiday specials and diamond commercials (thanks be to God that part is over) began long before Thanksgiving. A day devoted to simply being grateful doesn’t carry nearly the commercial value of what Christmas has become, so advertisers and marketers skip ahead so quickly to stir up our “need” to purchase, spend, and save a few dollars. “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” as Pope Francis just wrote in his new exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. How many consumers and retail workers, I wonder, have to be killed on Black Friday for us to wake up?
“Waking up.” I love that imagery. There are so many pop songs that tap into this need of every man and woman to periodically come back to life: “Waking Up” by OneRepublic, “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire, “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons (and even that new “Wake Me Up” by Aloe Blacc/Avicii).
The readings from this first Sunday of Advent clearly point us as well to our need to arise from indifference, sloth, and complacency. “Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep” (Romans 13) and from the mouth of Christ, “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Matthew 27).
So what is the Church trying to teach us with the season of Advent, the four weeks of preparation before Christmas?
Advent, as I see it, is a time for some purposeful silence and rest in preparation to re-welcome the Lord into our lives. Never a promoter of workaholics, Jesus often took his disciples to a deserted place to rest and come back to life (Mark 6:30-31), and I would imagine he continues to ask us to do the same. Advent offers us the counter-cultural suggestion to not run out to the Mall in anxious busyness, or exhaust ourselves with empty pursuits.
I see a fundamental restlessness in our culture. We drift from holiday to holiday, sports season to season, trying to fill the void, that part of us that yearns for purpose, that “God-shaped hole.” As soon as one season or holiday is done, we immediately have to know “what’s next?” That necessary void of silence after any episode makes us uncomfortable and, if we don’t numb ourselves with more noise, the questions inevitably bubble up in our soul: Why am I here? What am I made for? Who am I?
Jesus is the answer. Now, I don’t mean in the way that my freshmen theology students intend, by writing down “Jesus” (or “Batman”) for every answer and expecting to get an ‘A’ on a test. I mean in the ultimate, final purpose of my being, the reason why I was breathed into this world and for Whom I have been made to exist as a part of for all eternity. But let’s get back to pop music for a moment.
As an avid U2 fan, I loved reading the book Bono: In Conversation a few years back, especially when I came across Bono’s reflections on Christ’s birth during a Christmas Eve Mass in Dublin. The words from his interview made the rounds online some years back, and I imagine will so again:
“The idea that God, if there is a force of Logic and Love in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in s— and straw…a child… I just thought: “Wow!” Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. There it was. I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came streaming down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this.”
Mind. Blown. Thanks, Bono.
So how do we prepare for this coming of the Christ, the child born in straw poverty? I mean, gingerbread lattes and crowded malls are great and all, but how about some depth. Here are some suggestions:
· Abstaining from something. Just like during Lent, Advent could be a great time to sacrifice something good for the sake of Christ and the Church. Jackie has challenged me on several occasions to give up listening to music while I drive, but that’s too radical. (Even I’m not that tough…God understands). But seriously, maybe it’d be a meaningful sacrifice to abstain from listening to Christmas songs until Christmas actually came. Just a suggestion.
· Adding a spiritual devotion. Pick up the rosary daily, read a great spiritual book for Advent (Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God comes to mind), or try to hit up a daily Mass once a week (or maybe even daily…go figure).
· Almsgiving: Again, I default to our shepherd and model, Pope Francis: “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor” (EG, #2). We can always give from our excess, however much or little there is. As my friend Chris poignantly posted, “If you can pay $4 for a cup of coffee, you are not poor.”
· Praying. I often struggle with this exceedingly simple answer to my restlessness and self-centeredness. Just pray. Pray through your clothing donations, pray in your service to the poor and hungry, pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Get back in touch with the Author of all things who has written a grander love story than It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Muppet Christmas Carol combined.
It’s a struggle to wait for anything, let alone the most joyful day of the calendar year (next to Easter…and then any day that a Marvel superhero movie is released). Many don’t even realize that Christmas itself is a season, not one day, and it actually lasts until the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 12th). I forced my family to keep up our Christmas tree until January once I learned this factoid—mom’s complaints of dead pine needles be darned. So as Christmas begins to appear on that candy-cane horizon, let’s first enter into the necessary darkness and quiet of winter’s night. Only through the darkness will there be a dawn, and only in silence can Christ grow in our hearts.
“The light is shining in the darkness, but the darkness does not comprehend it…In the seasons of our Advent—waking, working, eating, sleeping, being—each breath is a breathing of Christ into the world.”
-Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God