In many of our cultures the Christmas season is in full swing. It is the version of Christmas when we are told to buy more things and to accumulate as many material possessions as we can for ourselves and others. This is an understandable mentality in wealthier nations, only because we have been inundated with this message since childhood. Pay close attention to advertisements and commercials this time of year and throughout the year. Buying item X will bring you happiness, joy, comfort, or pleasure. You need this car, dress, computer, shoes, TV, and the list is endless. We are also told that we need an endless supply of fast food and junk food to provide for our immediate gratification as we spend hundreds or thousands on a credit card while shopping for Christmas. How often do you feel the need for a cheeseburger after a Hardee’s commercial? I know I have in the past and still do depending on the food being advertised. What are we preparing for exactly? It is supposed be the upcoming celebration of Our Lord’s Birth; or these days, the winter solstice?
If I could sum up this time of year in one word it would be: busy. The second word would be: noisy. There is an endless array of distractions, colors, dazzling displays, and blaring Christmas music telling us this is the “most wonderful time of the year”, and yet, everyone seems harried, hurried, unpleasant, and overwhelmed. We absolutely must buy a gift for Aunt Jean twice removed on our mother’s side. There must be a mountain of presents under the tree by December 24th and we absolutely have to attend every single soiree we are invited to, even if it means little to no silence or preparation for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas or in the Second Coming.
Where did all of these imperatives come from? In all of this busyness, are we truly ready to receive Christ into our hearts more fully at Christmas? Can we be ready in this craziness? Are we ready if Our Lord decided to come tomorrow in Glory to usher in the end of time and the new earth and Heaven? Whose birthday are we getting ready for at this point in time? Does a mountain of gifts point to Christ or our own desires? He was born in a stable, after all. My point here is not to denigrate the giving side of the upcoming (no it is not Christmas, yet) Christmas season. It is to help us consider if there is another way and whether or not we truly believe our hope dwells outside of this world.
Our neighbors are overwhelmed and overburdened. They are enslaved by the notion that buying one more item or one more gift will fulfill them. The problem is, that far too many of us Catholics are also enslaved by this aspect of our culture. This is a battle all of us wage as we fight our desire for lower goods over our ultimate good: God. Do our lives reflect our Catholic Faith and this Advent season, or do we look the same as our frenzied neighbors?
Our Hope is in the Lord
We have an opportunity to deepen our own spiritual journey and to bring our neighbors along if we willingly enter into the season of Advent. We must be willing to wait. Yes, it is counter-cultural and foreign. Most of us are used to setting up our Christmas Trees and heading straight into the cultural version of the Christmas season right after Thanksgiving. The problem is, we then miss the period of waiting and we often end up ready to end Christmas on December 25th. We are Catholic. In the Latin Rite, Christmas Day lasts eight days in the Octave and the season ends at the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. On December 25th, we are only getting started with our celebrate of the profound gift of the Incarnation. The Twelve Days of Christmas are from Christmas to Epiphany, not the twelve days prior to Christmas.
In order to prepare for the great Solemnity of Christmas, we must silence our hearts and minds. We must ask God to help us overcome our tendency for immediate gratification. Advent is a penitential season for this reason. Yes, we want to celebrate and to a certain extent that cannot be avoided, but we should be actively living Advent. Pick a few events to attend and save the rest for the actual Christmas season. We need to spend time examining where our hope truly lies. If we are too focused on gifts and the externals of Christmas, then we need God to guide us back to a focus on Him. We must remember that Christ is our greatest gift.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:4)
Where is our life right now? Does it dwell with God or in the external realities of this busy season within our culture?
Less is more
Does our celebration of Christmas point to the humble beginnings of Our Savior or is it more closely related to the materialistic frenzy of the culture? This is not to say that gifts are a bad idea. The question is, do we celebrate Christmas for the sake of Jesus Christ, or because we desire gifts or to give gifts? Is Christ firmly at the center of our Christmas celebration? What about our celebration of Christmas draws us more deeply into the Incarnation? Advent is the time when we prepare for Christmas in a physical and a spiritual manner. God will lead us out into the deep, if we let Him. Are our preparations centered on Christ or are they focused largely on external elements? Have we made a concerted effort, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to focus on waiting for Christ during Advent? Is it the Living God we seek or merely pleasures and a type of happiness, which is a shadow of joy? The joy of Christmas is much deeper than a fleeting happiness found in a new gift. That joy awakens a thousand-fold if we spend these four weeks focusing on waiting in hope and truly walking the Christian life.
In my experience, paring down the material side of Advent and Christmas greatly deepens the spiritual dimensions. I do not spend my Advent stuck in traffic, pushed around in stores, or struggling to maintain patience in the face of widespread rudeness. In paring back, and focusing on Christ in Advent, I am more prepared for the realities offered in the mystery of Christmas. Christmas is about Him after all and not about me. This Advent let us focus on truly preparing for the coming of the Christ child and also ask God to help us grow in holiness because we do not know the hour when He will come again.
Give account for our joy
If we enter deeper into hope and walk with Christ and His Heavenly Mother during Advent, we are better equipped to enter into joy and share that joy with others. People should be able to sense something different about us. They should know that we are Catholic by the way we live our lives, but do they see a difference? Can our neighbors tell we love the Lord, serve Him, and live the Catholic life fully? In reality, most of us at one point or another—myself included—must answer in the negative. If we are out shopping incessantly, focused on material possessions, and not entering into this period of waiting, then we will be no different from our culture come Christmas Eve. What do we want this Christmas: More things or more joy? The latter can only be found in Christ and in truly focusing our lives on him.
Our culture is restless. It is enslaved by lower goods and disordered passions. We ourselves have been inundated by the consumerism and materialism of our age. We have to make a willful choice to cut back and reorient ourselves to the true meaning of the upcoming Christmas season. This is one of the purposes of Advent. It is to help us fix our gaze on Christ in hope that He will come again and that we will soon celebrate the astonishing mystery of the Incarnation. We cannot enter into this mystery if we are distracted by worldly desires. We cannot place this world over the world to come. Advent reminds us that this is not our home and that we can only be fulfilled through communion with the Most Holy Trinity.
It is time for Catholics to live their counter-cultural mission through the life of the Church, so that all the world may be brought to Christ through the witness of our lives and by the power of the Holy Spirit. One way we do this is by living Advent and cutting back on the material aspects of our Christmas preparations. There is a lot more time for prayer and the Sacraments when we are not overwhelmed in a shopping line at countless stores. May Our Lord guide you and me to Himself through this period of waiting in joyful hope. A very blessed Advent to you all.