The Holidays. Some people love them; some people hate them. I, personally, navigate them in much the same way that I navigate baseball, basketball, and football season. Sports and the holidays mean everything to a lot of people. They throw their heart and soul into the appreciation of them. I don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun, not to mention the fact that being critical of these practices can get you quickly dropped from any number of social calendars. I just try to go with the flow, and manage to find some things to enjoy in all the hubbub. So I’m not exactly Scrooge and I’m not exactly Charlie Brown.
The fact is that what we have in this country now is Commercial Christmas. That is actually a holiday, though we don’t admit it. It runs from about a week before Thanksgiving until just before New Year’s Eve. It starts in earnest the day after we have stuffed ourselves with more turkey and gravy than human beings were designed to eat. On Black Friday, big box outlet stores everywhere are turned into Roman Coliseums, and we all get to be gladiators who fight each other for the best bargains. It’s a good way to put into everyone’s mind that, after all, this is what Commercial Christmas is all about—shopping. And from thence, shopping continues, first in acquisition mode, until 3 a.m on December 25, then in trading and disappointment mode for the next few weeks. Shopping has been given a further boost since the mall has moved into our computers.
There is an aspect of Commercial Christmas that’s hard to pigeonhole, but I must try. Implicit in the idea of a commercial holiday—stating it boldly would be sobering—is the idea that some people are a lot richer than other people, and that our great American system allows us to stage competitions to determine just who those people are or should be. After all, not everyone can be a winner, and quite a few folks are actually born loosers. Don’t think that I am being bitter here, ask yourself if this doesn’t actually tag an aspect of the holiday we are discussing.
First there’s the Competition of the Lights. Only Scrooge and a few crazy environmentalists wouldn’t go all out to have the most dramatic light display on the block. During the month of December, trees, outside walls, shrubs, doorways, and windows all become bedecked with strings of blinking, flashing, multicolored lights. Each house says, “Look at me.” Within each household is the Competition of the Tree. Again, the variety is astonishing. All silver trees, multicolored trees, trees to the ceiling, festooned with garlands, shiny balls, lights elaborately flashing or twinkling, and icons of some religious holiday. In 2011, according to an article in Business Insider, 6 billion dollars was spent on Christmas decorations. And then there’s the Competition of the Gifts. An article in Investopedia estimates that in 2018, Americans will spend an average of $885 per person on holiday gifts. If you need a benchmark for that kind of spending, the average household with an income of over $62,000 gives a bit over $2200 of that a year to charity.
I’ve been skeptical about the wisdom of investing much in holiday gifts ever since I witnessed my grandmother flip out over the gift of a sapphire ring. Mom could almost never get dad to wait until Christmas morning to open the gifts—I can only think of one exception. He would close the grocery store somewhere between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., and then he’d start foraging under the tree and hand the gifts out one by one until there was a general melee of ripped wrapping paper. This one particular Christmas, when I was in my late teens, we were well into the process. My grandmother had lived with us since I was 11, and mom always struggled with choosing her gift. This time Lorene had bought her mother quite a beautiful sapphire-set gold ring, but after sitting there quietly for a few moments contemplating this small treasure amid the flurry of discarded wrap and boxes, Clara announced loudly, “You don’t love me,” ran loudly crying up the stairs to her bedroom, and slammed the door. Dejected, my mother said softly, “I can never please her,” and there was some truth in that. But I digress.
By now, you’ve probably got the idea that I really don’t take Commercial Christmas very seriously, so I will spare you my further post-modernist deconstruction and get to the real, and possibly interesting point of this blog piece: how does a person in a church with a seasonal liturgy navigate the perilous waters of the affluent excesses of Commercial Christmas during most of the month of December.
So right away, I must confess, I am at a disadvantage here, because I am already one down in the tribe to which I aspire. I am not a cradle episcopalian, nor do I intend to speak with theological authority here. After all, my spouse, Stephen and I have only been faithfully attending Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis for 32 years now. He, a disaffected and rejected Roman Catholic who aspired to the priesthood, and I, spawn of TV Christians in a small town, a self-proclaimed atheist until I had a born-again experience at age 34 in the Metropolitan Community Church, we met and moved in together. It might help you to grasp just what a jewel Stephen is to know that a few months after he had moved in, I sat up in bed in the middle of one night and announced, “I’m bringing Jesus Christ right down into this bed.” He didn’t leave the next morning, and the rest is (hopefully not tiresome) history. Next, I proclaimed that we must find a church, or our relationship would not last. And so we stayed at the first church into which we walked, just half a block from our Central West End 3rd floor walk-up condo of the time.
The Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. is a member of the Anglican Communion, though we have recently been spanked for opening our hearts and minds to the possibility that LGBTQ people are morally on the same level as “straight” people. There is much we could talk about, but for the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on the fact that the Episcopal Church is a seasonal church and how the season of Advent relates to the Commercial Christmas season which we have been characterizing and discussing.
So the seasons of the church are Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, and again Ordinary Time. These seasons repeat in this order every year. It just so happens that we are starting the Church year on Sunday, December 2. This season of Advent lasts for four Sundays just until December 25, which is the day the Church officially remembers the birth of Jesus Christ, no matter the actual date. Since I have lived with a knowledgeable former Jesuit for the last 30 years, I decided to ask him what Advent meant to him. The first words out of his mouth were “Advent is a time of preparation and longing.” I might add that this longing is for the presence of Christ in the world, for the presence of Christ in your heart, and for Christ’s return in Glory. In the season of Advent, we remember the light of God coming into the world through the birth of Jesus Christ.
In our church, the seasons are marked by a change in color. Priests, deacons and chalices who are serving that Sunday wear vestments of a specific color appropriate to the season. The traditional color of vestments for Advent has been purple, representing the royal lineage of Jesus Christ. Trinity Episcopal is one of many churches that have started using a deep blue to represent Advent, blue being the color of the sky, of hope and of the expectation of the dawn. In our church we also set out an Advent wreath on the first Sunday in Advent. This wreath contains five candles, one for each of the four Sundays in Advent around the wreath, and a central candle of white. As Advent progresses through December, a new candle is lit each Sunday, in addtion to the previous ones, and finally, the central candle, representing the light of Christ is lit on Christmas Eve.
As it is in the Roman Catholic and some other churches, it is in the Episcopal Church: every Sunday the liturgy (the formal structure of worship) is centered around the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. While for many Christians, it means much more than this, it is in fact a remembrance and reinactment of the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ gave bread and wine to the Apostles to symbolize His sacrificing of his own life for their sake on the Cross. When one gives their life to Christ, they, too, must be prepared for sacrifice, possibly enormous sacrifice. And so this longing for the return of Christ that we contemplate in Advent has a sobering, though not somber aspect.
Back to the theme of this post, I think you can see the glaring tension here between Advent (which lasts most of December) and Commercial Christmas. In the words of the famous parody song by Tom Lehrer
Christmas time is here, by golly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly.
Disapproval would be folly;
Fill the cup, and don’t say, “When!”
Kill those turkeys, geese and chickens,
Make the punch, drag out the Dickens.
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.
It’s not that there is a total incompatibility between the two purposes. And so, we faithful episcopalians can light candles and even put white candles of expectation in our windows. Later in the season of Advent, after the 4th Sunday, we can decorate the church in a semi-formal party called the Hanging of the Greens. Boughs of pine festooned with broad red bowed and trailing ribbons are draped around the walls of the sanctuary, and cookies and coffee are served. But, at least in my own case, and I suspect, also with a lot of other folks who take their faith seriously, this mad, all out stampede to buy, buy, buy and decorate, decorate, decorate and party, party party is tiring and distracting rather than energizing and focusing.
For my own purposes, becoming a practicing episcopalian has actually made my Decembers more reflective and more quiet. I’m kind of a quiet person anyway, most of the time. I was even born in December—December 3—though my birthday was far enough away from December 25 that I never received gifts or celebrations of lesser value because of that fact.
Out here at the retirement center it is the custom to decorate our doorways in a seasonally appropriate way. We have a little alcove with a shelf. This year Stephen and I bought an Advent wreath and a wall countdown calendar. We’ll mark each passing day of Advent by taking an toy ornament from the pocket below the calendar and placing it on the tree on the face of the calendar. We also have a nice Santa Claus who stands 3 feet high. He won’t go up by the door until December 24. We will most probably go to the midnight mass that will be held at Trinity on Monday evening this year.
For those of you who don’t understand why there is a pink candle in the Advent wreath, here is the explanation. In earlier days, the season of Advent marked 40 days of fasting in preparation for the mass on the eve of Christ’s birth, which was pretty severe. And so, about half way through Advent, the third Sunday, also known as Gaudete Sunday, which this year is December 16 (Beethoven’s Birthday), the liturgical emphasis is less severe. “Gaudete” means “rejoice,” reflecting the approaching Christmas celebration. This day is also known as Rose Sunday, and is not required in the Anglican Church.
During the whole month of December, while much of the country is caught up in a whirling world of flashing lights, exotic gifts, and holiday parties, my church is focusing on getting us parishioners to reflect on both the joys of the presence of Christ in our lives and the serious responsibility that this places upon us. We need to cultivate an attitude of anticipation of Christ’s presence and of Christ’s return.
Having spelled out how Stephen and I celebrate “the reason for the season,” I want to firmly add that I also celebrate our democracy during this time of the year and all through the year. Just because I have made this personal choice of faith, that doesn’t mean that I want to cram it down everyone else’s throat. I’m not so arrogant as to think that my pathetic little musings about the meaning of the Universe have universal validity. Instead, I recognize that in a world of terrible things and uncertainty, it is important for everyone to make a moral choice. It’s also important for everyone to respect other people’s choices. Instead of focusing on our political differences, we could be focusing on cooperating with each other to do the work of Jesus Christ: feeding the poor, providing shelter for the homeless, visiting the sick and prisoners, welcoming the stranger, taking care of our families. And, of course, loving one another.