Hapless Holidays?

Advent Still Offers Its Ancient Invitation

“The holidays” this year have been rough.

Most Christians spent Easter at home. Memorial Day and Labor Day featured small family gatherings instead of fun family vacations. Socially distanced trick-or-treating, many parents discovered, was pretty difficult to accomplish. And now, in the shadow of a global pandemic, Americans wrestled with how to handle Thanksgiving. Roughly a third decided to gather with family and friends, anyway. Some decided to forego the holiday altogether. And some decided to somehow modify the usual get-together—gathering outside where possible, or meeting for a quick turkey sandwich in a park somewhere.

The media coverage of Thanksgiving is still fraught with peril. “White House Thanksgiving proclamation calls for Americans to 'gather' even as Covid-19 surges,” CNN haughtily reported. “Experts warn of coronavirus surge after widespread Thanksgiving travel,” chimes The Guardian. Nationwide, we are now waiting for the next COVID surge—just in time to ruin Christmas. In the meantime, Americans’ email inboxes are filled to the brim with Black Friday and Cyber Monday marketing—which still fell flat in comparison to previous year’s spending. And most of wonder, what is Christmas going to look like this year, anyway?

Thankfully, and none too soon, it is time for Advent, a time of preparation as Christians await the coming of Christ. If the media had its way, all of Advent would also be stripped of any Christian meaning, focused instead on buying Advent calendars. There are boozy Advent calendars, chocolate Advent calendars, kids Advent calendars, even pet Advent calendars. SELF advertises “The 34 Best Advent Calendars You Can Still Buy,” featuring everything from beauty products to bath scents to candy. The story calls on readers to “treat” themselves “with little gifts throughout the month and end this cursed year on a high note.”

But a traditional understanding of Advent instead calls for some exercise of self-denial, of refraining from the consumerist frenzy. The conservative Catholic mom of one of my friends once explained why her daughter’s wedding was planned for November and not December. “Traditional Catholics don’t party during Advent,” she said. But the truth of her words sank in.

The word “Advent” stems, of course, from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival.” It is a time when Christians prepare for the arrival of the Messiah, of salvation. This preparation can take many forms, but historically includes some mix of prayer, serious reflection, repentance, and quiet—the opposite, in other words, of what the American consumerist culture tries to push down our throats. Individual Christians observe Advent in many ways, but the analogy of preparing for a beloved guest (in this time when many of us can’t do exactly that) may serve as a good reminder. When we welcome a loved one to our home, what do we do in preparation? We clean, we stock our fridges, we plan, we think about the loved one and what he or she enjoys or wants. We may take special pleasure in preparing a guest room precisely suited for the guest. It is not so unlike preparing for the arrival of the Christ Child. It is a time to take inventory of our hearts, to study the Loved One and what He wants from us. But like all of the Church’s holidays, it is primarily meant for us. Christ doesn’t need Advent; we do. We need a time of quiet, of reflection. The Lord knew, when He instituted the Sabbath, that His people needed rest. And the Church historically has understood that its members needed a season of rest and reflection.

This year especially we need to reflect upon the coming of Christ. We need to be reminded that He will come again. Enjoy this peculiar Advent season, that there is a forced quiet and separation. Take extra draughts from the Word and, when possible, the Sacraments. Be still and prepare your heart for the coming of Christ.

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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