I don’t know about you, but I always find this weekend after Thanksgiving to be a little strange. And I love Thanksgiving: what a great holiday when we don’t have to worry about shopping for gifts, but instead can concentrate on a nice meal with family or friends, or whatever our traditions may be. But this weekend, as a whole, has become rather strange, and I think I’ve always struggled a bit with it.
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 implications of Christmas here, 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 that horrible thing – Black Friday – what a nasty, evil name for a day that is, well, nasty and evil. I loathe the idea of even getting in the car to drive to the drug store to pick up a prescription on that day. And you can get an earlier and earlier start on the madness every year; this year the friendly folks at Kohl’s were waiting for you at 3am – at least that’s what I gathered from their advertisements for I have no personal experience to verify that fact! 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.
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 – 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. By the way, I do have a list of sappy songs that I could do without ever hearing again. I’d tell you some of the titles, but I don’t want you to leave here with those tunes going through your head – God forbid!
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 here 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.
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.
What we’re really going to need is a full immersion of hope. And we know what – or rather Who – is the source of that hope. That’s what we really celebrate at Christmas, what causes us to bend the knee in genuflection, what brings us here week after week, or even day after day. Our hope can only ever come from Christ our God, sent into a world just as listless and cold as the one we live in today. He came to redeem that world and re-create it in love, painting it all along the way with the bright hues of a hope that can never fade. We will not find that hope in our own personal resources; we won’t find it in science, in politics, in soccer, golf or work. We won’t find hope in Oprah or Dr. Phil or anyone else. The only real hope we have is Jesus Christ, and he is all the hope we will ever need.
Today’s first reading lights up the way to that hope: “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 have not been left to deal with the sadness of our world without an anchor of hope. That anchor is the Church, the Lord’s mountain, which provides instruction in the ways of God and a kind of roadmap to follow in God’s ways. Because, let’s face it, our ultimate goal is to come through the Judgment Day and be in God’s presence for all eternity. God has given us the Church to show us how to get there.
And that gift of the Church is wonderful, but we must humble ourselves and slow ourselves down to take advantage of it. The problem is that most people don’t believe in the necessity of the Eucharist and the sacraments any more. Far too many skip Mass on days when the kids have a sports event, or when they want to sleep in, or when they don’t feel like going through the trouble of getting the family to Church. Entirely too many people don’t think the Sacrament of Penance is necessary; that they haven’t done anything that bad, or that the priest won’t understand the bad thing they did, or that they can just pray for forgiveness. There is hope in the Church and her sacraments, and if we don’t take advantage of them, we have to stop wondering why our lives seem so devoid of hope sometimes.
We absolutely have to stop thinking we know what’s best for our lives-both our temporal as well as our spiritual lives. Because the Church has two millennia worth of saints who have wrestled with the truth and been victorious over the world by joining themselves to Christ. We need to open our minds and hearts to the wisdom of a Church that is governed by the Holy Spirit and possesses a Truth that is eternal, irrefutable and able to bring us to salvation. Maybe this Advent that means that we will humble ourselves and come to the Sacrament of Penance for the first time in many years. Or maybe in the coming year we won’t miss Sunday Mass in favor of a soccer game, an opportunity to golf, or a really important project at work. Because as important and wonderful as these things may be, soccer, golf and work will not get you to heaven. They just won’t.
Today’s prayer after Communion aptly pronounces what our readings call us to today. I want you to pay special attention to that prayer when I pray it later on. It speaks of the Eucharist teaching us to love heaven and says: “May its promise and hope guide our way on earth.” If we’re ever going to get through the craziness of a secularized holiday and our own struggles and the world’s woes, we need to take a step back, quiet ourselves, and let the hope of Advent brighten our outlook and heighten our longing to be with our God. May we all be transformed from the cynicism and apathy of our world into the joyful promise of the Kingdom of God. As the Psalmist sings today, may we all go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.