Why Advent kicks my spiritual ulcer into high gear.
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Are your Christmas decorations up? I hope not. Even though, strictly speaking, the Christmas Season cannot rightly be described as “starting” until the evening of December 24, we’ve all seen Christmas decorations in public or private spaces for at least a few weeks. Now, some might wish to give me the benefit of the doubt (thank you!) that my reservations about premature Christmas decorations are that these deprive the Season of Advent of the opportunity to be a season in its own right. I must confess, though, that the very thought of Advent beginning this coming Sunday makes me wince—for two reasons.
The first reason: I’d like to avoid thinking of Advent (besides the painful knowledge that “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” will be sung slowly, badly and interminably in nearly every parish in America for four weeks) is that Advent reminds me that the forthcoming Christmas Season, barring the Second Coming of Christ, is inevitable. And the way that Christmas is “celebrated” in America these days nearly moves me to despair. For me, the First Sunday of Advent means the start of the season that I call, “The Onset of Father McTeigue’s Pre-Christmas Spiritual Dyspepsia”, or, said more simply, “Advent is when Father McTeigue’s spiritual ulcer kicks into high gear.” Why do I say that?
Well, among other things, the Season of Advent is a time of preparation for the Season of Christmas, which itself is the liturgical season that our culture gets most wrong. Do I exaggerate? You can find out by going online and searching these words: “Walmart Black Friday Mob.” If you do so, you can watch countless hours of human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, Americans who are not hungry, beating the stuffing out of each other for foreign-made junk that no one really needs and that few can afford. If we as a nation mark our preparation for Christmas by Black Friday, then I think I may be justified in pining for a hermitage somewhere very far away.
I am not alone in experiencing the disquiet that comes from observing Christmas “preparations” and “celebrations.” Decades before I was born, Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran wrote a wrenching short story called, “The Eventide of the Feast.” I first read it when I was 19 years old, and I can gratefully say that it “ruined” how I had viewed Christmas. The story’s narrator sits at the outskirts of a village on Christmas Eve, observing the celebrations. He meets a stranger, whom the reader will quickly recognize is Jesus. The less-than-astute narrator asks the “stranger” why he does not join in the celebration. The answer is heartbreaking:
“Sorrowfully he answered, ‘I have tried every inn, and knocked at every door, but in vain. I have entered every food shop, but none cared to help me. I am hurt, not hungry; I am disappointed, not tired; I seek not roof, but human shelter.’ …And he continued in anguish, ‘The people are celebrating in My honour, pursuing the tradition woven by the ages around My name, but as to Myself, I am a stranger wandering from East to West upon this earth, and no one knows of me. The foxes have their holes, and the birds of the skies their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.’”
Gibran saw in his own time that people were so frantic in their “celebration” of the birth of Jesus that they overlooked Jesus in their midst. That kind of spiritual blindness (if not hardheartedness) cannot be remedied by posting bumper stickers declaring, “JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!” or “KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISMAS!” Even if we knew what those words meant, would we even know how to recognize Jesus today, or how to keep Christ in Christmas?
Italian scholar, author and former Catholic Umberto Eco (if I understand him correctly) thinks not. In 2005, he penned an essay lamenting the spiritual insolvency of both contemporary Christians and secularists in relation to Christmas. He laments the monstrosity of frenzied Christmas commerce as proof of the failure of Christians and the emptiness of consumerism.
He notes that men are mortal, which means that even the wealthiest man will run out of time before he runs out of money. Wealth cannot forestall death inevitably and wealth is unable to give meaning to one’s mortality. The latter was the work of religion, a duty which contemporary Christianity, in Eco’s view, is unwilling or unable to do. He sees both sectarians and secularists as lost: “We in Europe have faced a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the Christian churches has been declining. The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we’re all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.”
The present attempts to “celebrate” Christmas, by both self-identified Christians and secularist consumers, according to Eco, show that both groups have failed: “I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a Christmas crib for my grandson. We’ll construct it together—as my father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for the Christian traditions—which, as rituals for coping with death, still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives. I think I agree with Joyce’s lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?’ The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.”
To sum up: My first reason for not welcoming Advent is that it is a reminder that the Christmas season brings to the foreground the frantic and fruitless spiritual wasteland that faithless Christians and faithless secularists have made together.
My second reason for dreading the arrival of Advent is the foolish things said and done by people who claim to be doing the right thing by advocating that we “let Advent be Advent” before we move on to the Christmas season. Every year, for as long as I can remember, some well-intentioned soul spouts (often from the pulpit—alas!) pieties about Advent as a “Season of Patience”, with words like these: “Behold the serene, patient stillness of the pregnant woman waiting in joyful composure for the arrival of her child.” Whoever says that has never spent much time with pregnant women.
Also, many well intentioned people speak of Advent as a “Season of Hope,” without giving much thought to what “hope” might really mean—a topic I addressed in a previous column. Consequently, I am inclined to look forward to the departure of the Advent season, rather than to its arrival.
Nonetheless, the wisdom of the Church is to mark the Season of Advent in its own right, and the Church teaches that Advent is the proper way of preparing for the Season of Christmas. The wisdom of Advent, I believe, can be found and lived—and lived well—but a proper understanding of Advent must be preceded by a proper understanding of Christmas. We can arrive at a better reason and way to celebrate Christmas if we clear up the sadly overused and misunderstood word, “compassion.”
When I write next, I will address the Season of Christmas as a celebration of the compassion of God. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.