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Advent must have been something great back in the day. The sober, quiet calm before the storm of Christmas cheer. A time to hole up and gather energy for the Christmas feast.
It is not so anymore. For instance …
Imagine if, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and all the days between, the grocery store and the drug store blared “Jesus Christ is risen today-ay — ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-alleluia!”
That’s what they do during Advent. “Glo-woe-woe-woe-woe-woe — woe-woe-woe-woe-woe — woe-woe-woe-woe-woe-ria, in exclesis Deus!” In a strange irony, the very time when the Church won’t sing the Gloria is the only time CVS will.
Being a Catholic in a grocery store in Advent is like being a Catholic at the company lunch in Lent — on a Friday at the Dave’s Famous Barbecue.
This problem is compounded by the fact that, while there is a lot of great Lenten music about the days leading up to Easter (“O Sacred Head Surrounded” his my favorite), there is precious little Advent music about the days leading up to Christmas (because the Sacred Head was surrounded by amniotic fluid just then).
My brother, a piano player, solves the problem by willingly playing secular Christmas music only throughout Advent. If it celebrates winter and not the birth of Jesus, then there is no clash with Advent. I like that solution, but my favorite secular Christmas song is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which is wildly inappropriate in Advent. Because Advent is the Most Disappointing Time of the Year.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Jesse Tree. We have done one most of the years we have had children. Which is a quarter of a century. We have started out hanging the little fig leaf and telling the story of Genesis, we have gotten through the little Noah rainbow, even the little Moses burning bush. But we have never made it all the way through to the little fiery furnace and the little camel hair John-the-Baptist suit.
This year we are doing an Advent calendar with much shorter readings compared to our traditional Jesse Tree, so maybe it will be less disappointing.
Giving up stuff for Lent is one of the great underrated perks of being Catholic.
Our big secret: Mardi Gras isn’t really a thing with most of us. For most of us, we have been living it up in our small way throughout January and February, getting ready to give up the thing we plan to give up. We eat candy with abandon. We eat seconds without a thought. Then we get thirds. We drink with (moderate, not drunken) abandon.
But Advent penitence is weird. However much I have tried, “I gave that up for Advent” just doesn’t work on some deep psychological level for me. It also doesn’t work on a practical level, with office Christmas parties and secret Santa swaps and recitals with refreshments afterwards and the alarming ubiquity of frosted sugar cookies (I almost titled this piece “The Alarming Ubiquity of Frosted Sugar Cookies”).
Imagine you had nine children. Now imagine you have an unshakable desire to see their eyes dancing with pleasure at the great generosity of God and man on Christmas morning as they throw their little arms around you and shout, “Daddy, these gifts are wonderful!”
Now imagine what your bank account would look like at that very moment.
Now imagine trying to give money to the poor.
This is, of course, the real problem of the interplay between consumerism and charity. But it is also the real problem of the interplay between big families and charity.
God in his kindness showed us one answer: Volunteering. It was a few years ago when Christmas was on a Sunday. We were helping out Benedictine College’s Hunger Coalition and delivering meals on Christmas Eve. There we were, a line of small, large and medium-sized Hoopeses, knocking on drab doors, holding crisp white sack lunches — when snowflakes started to flutter down all around, like they would if our life were a Hallmark movie about volunteering on Christmas Eve.
The only problem: Now volunteering in Advent is disappointing if it doesn’t snow.
I am far from a purest about Christmas-stuff-in Advent. But my wife is an Advent hardliner. Together we have compromised over the years and now do most of our decoration on Gaudete Sunday.
Christmas decorations in Advent don’t bother me … but it does require my brain to do constant course corrections. I have a go-to analogy: I remind myself that before a baby is born a mother gets a baby shower, and then convince myself that the decked-out Walmart is the secular world’s baby shower for Jesus.
In my darker moments, though, I brood over the Jesus-averse “Holiday Greetings” and “Winter Sales” signs and mourn the loss of Christendom and its replacement with the insipid, soul-killing cult of the vicious god Mammon, in whose thrall I, too, labor. Which is disappointing.
But not everything in Advent is disappointing.
One thing that does not disappoint is the third thing we are called to do in Advent, in addition to almsgiving and sacrifice: prayer.
Every Advent, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” feels like the greatest song ever written, and the aching longing for Christmas morning gifts is easy to translate into an aching longing for God, like a deer longing for running water.
And maybe that’s the point: Advent is supposed to be disappointing, to make room for Christmas, which isn’t.