Monday, November 30, 2009

What brings us joy this Advent

Thanksgiving is a time of festivity and food and visiting with family and friends, arrived at with hours of preparation, and followed by dirty dishes and much cleaning up. Some travel many miles to eat the traditional meal, and by the end of the day most of us are exhausted (though well fed) and ready for an afternoon nap and a long night’s sleep - looking forward to (or maybe not looking forward to) leftover turkey for lunches and dinners in the days ahead. As evening approaches and the guests take their leave, we rest from the days events.

But some do not rest...

The Friday after Thanksgiving – Black Friday – with its deep-discounted, bargain sales and slick marketing campaigns, has become the shopper’s holiday. People awake in the wee hours of the morning, or do not sleep at all, to stand in line or camp out in parking lots, waiting for the doors to open at their favorite retailers and shopping malls. It is a vigil of sorts, as they gather in shuffling crowds before the sun rises, bundled up against the cold, anticipating the joy of sharing in this “sacred” rite.

Some friends I know awoke at three or four o’clock in the morning to join the teaming masses. A coworker’s wife drove more than thirty miles from their rural home into the city where she hoped to find the best deals – she had already visited three stores before her husband had gotten out of bed. I even heard about a couple who exchanged wedding vows in front of an electronics store and received a new flat-screen TV as a wedding gift from the retail chain that hosted their nuptials.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but a cold dimly-lit parking lot, surrounded by strangers clutching their purses and shopping lists, hardly seems like holy ground on which to wed. Do we now enter into the bonds of holy matrimony in the shadow of the dollar sign, where once the Cross stood? Have we erected a new god? What is the cultural significance of this “Black Friday” phenomenon?

The name itself strikes me as rather odd - Black Friday. Friday, the day that Christ gave up His life on the cross. How fitting that this day be called “black,” since Christians have traditionally marked Friday with solemnity - especially Catholics who have in the past given up meat on this day of the week, and still do throughout the season of Lent. Of course it is called “Black Friday” for quite another reason. It is the day that businesses hope to be “in the black” with large profits, drawing in customers with unbeatable deals and clever marketing. It is the day that starts the “official” Christmas shopping season.

Does this commercialized “Black Friday” compete with our Christian faith?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to the free market, and I love finding a good bargain. But a friend of mine made a remark this past Friday that put it all in perspective. He said, “You know, my wife went to these sales today, and it only took her half an hour to get ready. She was up before the sun and out the door in no time flat. Funny thing is for any other event she takes more than an hour to get ready, dragging her feet the whole time and showing nowhere near the enthusiasm. I’ve never seen her get up this early. When we leave for church on Sunday morning she always waits until the last minute and we barely make it there on time.”

His mention of “church” I found particularly relevant. This Sunday was the start of Advent, the time of preparation before Christmas, when Christians reflect on the coming of the Christ. During these weeks leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we set our priorities for the beginning of the liturgical year. As with Lent leading up to Easter, during Advent we pray and quietly prepare our souls for the coming of the Savior. It is a long vigil encompassing four Sundays…

But for this vigil we do not stand huddled in a parking lot counting our money and listening for the sound of doors being unlocked as crowds of eager shoppers press in around us. Christians during Advent retreat into the quiet of their own hearts and listen for the sound of angels singing, announcing Joy to the World. This vigil is a time to devote ourselves to the Almighty God, not the almighty dollar.

Certainly during Advent we shop and buy gifts as we prepare for the coming holiday. There is nothing sacrilegious or sinful about purchasing such tokens of love for family and friends as we plan for Christmas. But if we arise before dawn with glee and excitement, rushing to the mall for hours of money-spending madness, can we not bring the same enthusiasm to each Mass, or to the vigil of Christ’s birth? Do we instead drag our feet and complain that we need more sleep, and that we wish Mass was scheduled not quite so early? Do we give to Jesus the same joy that we give to our material goods (bought at discount prices, of course)? Are we denying Christ what is rightfully His – our love and devotion?

When Christ died on Good Friday He had told Peter just hours earlier, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” At sunrise each morning the “cock crows.” When that time comes, have we already been to three stores before others are even out of bed? How many hours of silent devotion and prayer could we spend in that same time? Do we deny Christ our joy and enthusiasm on Sunday mornings when we give it so freely to bargain sales and cheap discounts? This Advent we should not care so much about the gifts we purchased at the lowest sale prices, guaranteed, but focus instead on the Gift that was freely given – the birth of God’s Son.

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