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Welcome to the worst week Advent: the fourth. The first two Sundays are novel and the third is pink; the fourth is just annoying. It’s the extra wait you have to endure when the wait is supposed to be over.
The fourth Sunday of Advent is like sitting down to enjoy your favorite old movie — and getting the long boring opening credits.
It’s like the long disappointing wait for Phil Collins’ drums to kick in on “In the Air Tonight” (he does it right … now! Oops.)
It’s like saying grace and salting your potatoes only to hear Mom say, “Uh-oh! Looks like the chicken needs to cook longer.”
You want to shout, “All right already! Enough is enough!”
Fight the urge. Think of Advent week four like the time you spend kneeling in the dark of a two-sided confessional, covering your ears and waiting for the priest to open your side: It is a last extra chance to be fully prepared for the profound encounter that is about to happen.
Sociologists find it useful to distinguish certain holidays: “tension-management” holidays and “recommitment” holidays.
Tension-management holidays are times to party hard either in socially acceptable excess (Mardis Gras, New Year’s Eve) or in relaxed fun (Super Bowl Sunday, Halloween). They are designed to give us a breather from responsibility.
“Recommitment holidays” are times to re-up a life-promise. We treat Thanksgiving this way: a time to publicly name and claim our blessings. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Earth Day were created to be recommitment holidays, recommitting us to racial and ecological harmony.
The problem is when the secularized West turns recommitment holidays into tension-management holidays.
Independence Day used to be a recommitment holiday in which the Declaration of Independence was read aloud and embraced by each new generation. Now it is a time to bask in the beer-buzzed glow of a gas grill and fireworks.
Easter and Christmas are in danger of being turned to tension-management holidays too: Spring Fun Day and Winter Glow Day.
Let it not be so.
First, focus on recommitment stories.
Some Christmas specials work to reinforce the tension management narrative of Christmas. As a child Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and the Heat Miser taught me that the way to save Christmas is to save Santa’s toy route or to find the jolly sweet inner core of the beasts that threaten me. As adults, made-for-TV holiday movies repeat those lessons: buying saves; evil isn’t really so threatening.
Resist the temptation to watch these stories.
Instead, watch the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a countercultural parable pitting the community-minded Whos against the power-tripping Grinch. Watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is explicit in its choice of Jesus over consumerism, or A Christmas Carol, which says the same thing implicitly.
You will find that the best Christmas stories do what the original Christmas Story did: Their main characters refuse to let the humbugs of the state and market steal the joy of being human. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank examiner tries to do to the Baileys what Caesar tried to do to Mary and Joseph. Mr. Potter does what the innkeeper did. In both, the pushy state and the callous market are no match for simple human love.
Second, kneel in the lights and pray the rosary.
Everyone loves the magical transformation our surroundings undergo at Christmas. Suddenly everything becomes a mass of twinkling lights, as if the stars have been brought down from the sky and distributed among shops and living rooms.
The warm Christmas feeling courses with such power through our veins that we would be fools not to connect it to something worthy: Family togetherness, yes, but also the grand story of God’s entry into mankind. There is no better way to do this than to say the rosary, kneeling in front of the crèche in the glow of a tree strung with lights.
Add a decade, if you can, at the end of any caroling, Santa storytelling or memory-sharing that happens by your fireplace or tree. When your children feel Christmasy, they should automatically think of Mary. Jesus does.
Last, read Luke.
“’Twas the Night Before Christmas” is great to read aloud on Christmas Eve, but make sure you read Luke 2:1–20 aloud on Christmas morning.
If you aren’t reminding yourself and your family of the deep, eternal reason for what you are doing this Christmas, you are doing Christmas wrong.
The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).