I don’t know about you, but I always find this weekend after Thanksgiving to be a little strange. And I love Thanksgiving: I enjoy joining my mother and sisters in the kitchen to cook a wonderful meal, and spend the day with our family. But this weekend, as a whole, has become rather conflicted, and it really seems to bother me in some ways.
Here is a weekend when we can barely clear the plates at the Thanksgiving dinner table before we have to make room for Christmas. And I’m not talking about the religious observance of the Incarnation of our Lord, but you know I mean all the secular trappings of that holy day. It begins about Halloween, or maybe a little earlier, when you start to see the stores slowly make room for the Christmas stuff. They sneak in some “holiday” signs here and there, and start to weave the garland in to the end of the aisles, just past the Halloween costumes. On Thanksgiving day, you hear the great “thud” of the daily newspaper, heavier than it is on most Sundays because of all the “Black Friday” sales.
And then there’s Black Friday itself, which now starts bright and early on Thursday morning – Thursday, you know, Thanksgiving Day. We then get to be treated to Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. I can hardly wait for what they’ll come up with for Tuesday, Wednesday, and the rest of the week. What a commercial mess this has all become, what a sad commentary on what makes our society tick. We barely have time to gather up the pumpkins and corn stalks and autumn leaves before we have to set out the Christmas stockings and brightly-lit trees and candy canes. None of which has anything to do with the birth of our Lord.
This is a weekend that has always brought a lot of conflicting emotions for me. As a Liturgist, I want to celebrate Advent, but we don’t get to do that at least in the secular world. And I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch – I love Christmas, but I’d like to experience the eager expectation of it, and to be mindful of the real gift of Christmas, before we launch headlong into the real sappy Christmas songs that get played over and over and over in the stores and on the secular radio stations. I’d like to savor the expectation of Advent before we have to deck the halls and all the rest of it.
And, for a lot of people, these upcoming Christmas holidays are hard. Maybe they’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job or house, or who knows what calamity. The synthetic joy of these holidays just heightens their grief, and that makes this season anything but joyful for them. I remember the year my grandmother on dad’s side passed away. I went into a store one day in Glen Ellyn about this time of year, and it was decorated with all sorts of subdued lighting and homey Christmas motifs, and I had this feeling of grief that was just overwhelming – it came at me out of nowhere, and I had to leave the store in tears for no apparent reason. Grief tends to sneak up on us, and sometimes the joy that others are experiencing amplifies the sadness that we feel when we are still mourning.
The emotions we feel at this time of year are palpable and often conflicted. The Church knows this, and in Her great wisdom, gives us the season of Advent every year. It’s a season that recognizes that there is this hole in our hearts that needs to be filled up with something. That something isn’t going to be an item you can pick up on Black Friday, or a trite holiday jingle, or even a gingerbread-flavored libation. Those things can’t possibly fill up our personal sadness, or the lack of peace in the world, or the cynicism and apathy that plague our world and confront us day after day.
And so in our readings today, rather boldly, the Church is telling us to cut out all of this nonsense and get serious about our eternity. Because if we’re only living from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, we are going to be left behind with our cheap electronics and gaudy trinkets, and have none of the real riches of the Kingdom of God.
And so our first reading, from the second chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, has us taking a step back to look at our lives: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” We need to go a little higher and look down on what we’ve become in order to see how we fit into the bigger picture. Do we see ourselves as concerned about peace and justice in the world, looking out for the needs of the needy and the marginalized, blanketing our world in holiness and calling it to become bright and beautiful as it walks in the light of the Lord?
Or do we take part in those deeds of darkness that Saint Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans today? Do we perpetuate orgies and drunkenness, promiscuity and lust, rivalries and jealousy? Do we participate in these dark deeds to the point of giving scandal to those who carefully watch the activities of people of faith? If we do, then Saint Paul clearly commands us to get our act together: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us conduct ourselves properly…”
So this Advent season is clearly about something more than hanging up pretty decorations for a birthday party. It’s definitely about something more than perpetuating rampant consumerism and secularism. The stakes are too high for that. Because while we are distracted by all of that fake joy, we are in danger of missing the real joy for which we were created. Just as in the days of Noah, as Jesus points out in our Gospel today, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, so it will be in the coming Day of the Lord. Just as those oblivious ones were surprised by the flood, we too are in danger of being surprised by the second coming. God forbid that two men are hanging lights on the house when one is taken and the other is left. Or that two women are getting some crazy deals at Macy’s and one is taken and the other is left. We have to be prepared, because at an hour we do not expect, our Lord will certainly return.
Don’t get me wrong: the return of our Lord is not something to be feared. Indeed, we eagerly await that coming in these Advent days. I’m just saying that if we aren’t attentive to our spiritual lives, if we aren’t zealous about living the Gospel, if we aren’t intentional about making time for worship and deepening our relationship with the Lord, then we are going to miss out on something pretty wonderful. We have to stay awake, we have to live in the Lord’s daylight and not prefer the world’s darkness, we have to eagerly expect our Lord’s birth into our hearts and souls, right here and now, and not in some distant day.
Or we’ll miss it. God forbid, we’ll miss it.