This last Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent (with apologies to my Old Calendar Orthodox friends!) Just as Adult Ed was starting at church, which we have prior to the service, I got paged away to work. I wound up missing the Eucharist as well as the book discussion. No complaints (well, okay, a few whines) – it goes with the turf; but it did cause me to think a little.
The Little Lent of Advent is a time of penitence, reflection, and self-dedication in preparation for the great act of God in the Incarnation, a time of fasting and prayer. Depending on one’s tradition, this may involve everything from a general call for reflection to a well-defined set of duties and specific fasts. I’m not interested in debating the merits of any particular approach to Advent; what strikes me is that we live in a society that makes keeping a Holy Advent well nigh impossible.
Advent corresponds quite neatly with the commercial “Holiday Season,” which I’m coming to believe is Satan’s anti-Advent.
Advent calls for reflection; the Holiday Season calls for distraction. Advent calls for prayer and fasting; the Holiday Season calls for excess. Advent calls for penitence; the Holiday Season calls for self-indulgence. Advent calls us to God; the Holiday Season calls us to the World.
Fasting? Anyone who knows more than two people is going to find himself attending at least one “Holiday Party.” Every cube in the office sports candy, cookies, crackers, or so-and-so’s famous venison jerky. Anyone who drops by the house brings something to eat or drink with them. In terms of fasting, the average American gains a pound and a half every Christmas.
Sure, you can still fast. Just try to be unobtrusive about it, though – you’ll find it’s close to impossible. Hey, you haven’t tried my jerky! Here, have a cookie! Whaddaya mean, you don’t want some vodka punch? You some kind of Holy Roller? Trying to spoil the party?
And that’s just the literal fasting from foodstuffs. The whole idea of self-restraint is skewed this time of year. I’ve certainly been known to justify an excessive, extravagant, or just plain moronic purchase with the excuse, “Hey, it’s Christmas.”
Reflection? The Holiday Season coincides with the end of the fall semester for teachers and students, with the concomitant testing and grades to preoccupy their time. It‘s also the time of maximum retail sales, with the corresponding economic worries for both seller and consumer. Maximum sales drive maximum production rates, at least in some industries. Increased production strains the IT infrastructure. Increased travel strains the transportation system. The “Sound of the Holidays” isn’t silver bells in the steeple; it’s the beeper going off at two in the morning.
Prayer? Jammed on the highway; jammed in the shopping mall; jammed for money; jammed for time; jammed for keeping the industrial engine running with duct tape and staples. God’s name is probably taken in vain more times during the Holiday Season than at any other time or place except a battlefield.
Penitence? Historically, the prime connection between penitence and the Holiday Season for this sinner is that December usually just gives me more things to be penitent for.
I don’t intend this as a curmudgeonly screed against Capitalist Christmas. I’ve participated just as much as anyone else. It certainly has its good points. Money spent at Christmas is money paid out in wages, salaries, and dividends. Charitable giving maxes out at Christmas time, when the connection between man and wallet is at its weakest. And the world turns its attention towards the affairs of children, which is usually a good thing for all of us. Besides, I like
flying reindeers and Santa Claus!
But the deck is stacked against anyone who wants to keep a holy Advent. It’s bloody awful hard when you belong to a good Christian community; if you don’t have a lot of Christian friends, you’re toast. Unless you stay inside your house, you will be under constant assault. If you do stay in your house, you’ll be both unemployed and friendless. If you go forth to carry the message of fasting and penitence, you’ll be a stick in the mud and a social pariah. And I no longer think it’s just an accident – the Evil One is pretty slick.
Screwtape always made the point that it doesn’t matter to Satan whether we think evil thoughts or nice thoughts, do bad things or good things, steal from people or buy presents for them, as long as what we do isn’t directed towards God. And the Holiday Season submerges thoughts of God beneath thoughts of man, and turns the self-sacrificing God of the Incarnation into the god of the potlatch, where niceness takes the place of goodness.
Lord, help us to find those places and moments in the coming weeks where we can be still, where we can think of what it means for You to enter as a participant into Your own creation, where we can look at the flaws and failures that necessitate Your redemption, and where we can renew ourselves in the true light of Your untainted Self-giving Love. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.
(John 1:9-12, RSV)