Years ago, I was attending a Christmas party in Anchorage and the late Archbishop Francis Hurley was also there. Someone had a mug or an ornament with that popular saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
Archbishop Hurley examined it and with his droll Irish humor remarked, “He gets blamed for everything.”
That’s a good commentary, actually, on the conflict that a Christian often faces in observing Advent in the midst of an American cultural Christmas season.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the Gospel of Mark tells us Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.”
Long before it became today’s fashionable trend, Jesus espoused the importance of “mindfulness.” Pay attention. Life is short. Sometimes it’s particularly hard to be fully mindful during busy December.
For Christians, Advent is a time to pause and ponder the incredible truth that we have a God who entered human history in all its messiness. Yet, December often finds us overwhelmed by tasks that compete with mindfulness.
Sometimes, we endeavor to make our Christmas the Hallmark, Madison Avenue event that our culture tells us it should be.
We celebrate a savior who came to us in poverty and spent his life among the poor, the marginalized, the prostitute, the Samaritan, the “other.” Yet to celebrate his birth, we find ourselves immersed in waste and overconsumption.
Is it any wonder we find ourselves stressed during the holidays, feeling conflicted?
I’m not advocating a “bah humbug” approach. The bells, the glitter, the music, the lights — these are joyful. The Christmas cards with personal notes and kids’ pictures, the eggnog, the cookies, finding the perfect gift that will light up someone’s eyes, even the goofy Christmas sweaters — enjoy. After all, it’s Advent, not the penitential season of Lent.
If we can’t celebrate the birth of Jesus, and his willingness to love us to the end, what is worth celebrating?
But, our Gospel reading suggests that it’s easy to forget, in the midst of December, what — and who — we are celebrating.
It’s a warning sign if we find ourselves compartmentalizing our spiritual celebration from our secular one.
Many of us, for instance, chafe at the “have to” feel of some Christmas shopping. We buy things simply because we believe we must. Will this additional toy really contribute to this child’s good? Do we feel a pang of guilt as we remember Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si,” and yet fill giant garbage bags with unrecyclable plastic and wrapping paper on Christmas morning?
Can we discuss with our families a need to pare down on gifting in order to help those around us who are in greater need? Can we make time to visit someone who is lonely or grieving, perhaps in a nursing home, prison, hospital or shelter?
Can we promise to examine each potential purchase with an eye towards thinking about the environmental impact of the gift and packaging? Can we resolve to askew plastic utensils and tablecloths for the season? Can we begin each day spending time with Jesus, so that we are mindful of the real reason for our celebration?
Maybe if we scrapped our “to-do” list and made a new list of ways we could ensure that Advent falls in line with our values of justice, charity and care for the earth, our Christmas could be even more joyful.
Jesus said of the master of the house, “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.” Those are good words to remember every day of December.