A review of how we spent the Advent season can be a very humbling experience. We intended to follow a spiritual path summed up by such themes as a journey toward greater love and reflection on Christ’s transformative entry into our world in the past, present and future.Too often, we realize at year’s end that much of our Advent “pilgrimage” could be summarized by a mundane secular image of Christmas preparation—a shopping list we carried through the suburban mall of life, checking off gifts and pleasures for ourselves and others.
As with a child’s “letter to Santa,” our human tendency toward materialism equates love and happiness with the acquisition of “things.” Relativism, hardened hearts and an erosion of tradition and faith threaten to disconnect our lists from “the reason for the season” and the sense of purpose embodied (incarnated!) in the endpoint of our journey. However, that destination, the Christmas season, brings the fulfillment of our deepest needs and desires, tied to our human destiny and truly what all of us are “shopping” for.
What exactly is shaping our shopping list when our post-modern, post-truth culture overwhelms the spirit of Advent? We are all looking for the following things:
- A god. Yearning to fill that God-size space in our hearts, we roam from store to store, from story to story, until we find a god to serve (because it serves us). The world stands ready to provide gods of commercialism, pride, power, lust and self-centeredness. But in reality, God satisfies our hunger through the miracle of Christmas. Not only does He give us a deity to serve, but, born in a manger, this God has come to serve us in ways that no “Black Friday” follower can even imagine.
- A sense of righteousness and value. We need to feel we are virtuous—“on the right side” in a battle between good and evil. Marketers, activists and opinion-shapers are happy to tell us that “virtue” is a kind of signal that can be bought and flaunted. However, true human virtue is something we must develop in ourselves, or cultivate as a gift from God. Christmas, like the whole life, death and resurrection of Christ, is the supreme statement of the human dignity we all share. We need to respond by participating in, not leading, the spiritual warfare in which the Nativity was a milestone of righteousness.
- A devil. The logic of a war of good vs. evil requires a nemesis who opposes our god and the brand of virtue we’ve selected. If a person can be his or her own god, another person can become the devil incarnate. Christmas tells us “the battle is the Lord’s.” The devil is real, but the battle line against evil runs through the human heart. We win the fight by receiving Christ there. He loves the sinner and assists us with the grace of that love.
- Truth, goodness and beauty. Everyone craves a knowledge of reality—an appreciation of what is, and why. This craving can bless the individual and others if it provides common ground for celebrations, collaborations and communion. But in lieu of seeking these eternal goods anchored in “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” we sometimes settle for a bazaar of cheap imitations. The gifts we give at Christmas should be meaningful affirmations of persons created for the very best, the really real. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented to the Christ Child were prophetically on-point at the start of His mission. They are great models for us to follow in our gift-giving.
- Justice and mercy. We often make the mistake of including only justice or only mercy on our lists. We are inclined to exact justice against others while demanding that they give us mercy. We make unfair snap judgments about their motivations and traits, but we insist that they conform to our narratives. One might say Christmas teaches us that a “gift set” containing both these qualities is by far the best value. In God’s economy, they are inseparable. For help in discerning the optimal proportions for each in any particular situation, we can look to the Nativity scene. Saint Joseph was a “just man” whose love for Mary evoked mercy, while Mary’s Magnificat honors both qualities in her Lord. The Holy Family was the environment from which Jesus emerged to teach us better balancing.
The above list contains only five of the numerous items one might find on our year-round, life-long pursuits of meaning and happiness. Together, the Advent and Christmas seasons—and the different ways we may approach them in today’s society—can educate us to keep our agendas both profound and simple.
Some say the pleasure of a journey is largely about “getting there,” but the destination defines, illuminates and simplifies the trip. Especially as we look at our “holiday shopping list,” we cannot afford to forget the timeless lessons taught by the annual arrival of Christmas.