Why Advent kicks my spiritual ulcer into high gear.
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.