A people out of time
“Black Friday” began on Thursday this year, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to open my e-mail this morning to read Amazon.com‘s announcement that “Cyber Monday begins today!” Not only does our culture have misplaced values, but the competition to reinforce our materialistic focus is playing with the calendar. Again.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday celebration of the Church’s liturgical year. Next Sunday, we will begin Advent, the season of preparation and anticipation that leads us towards Christmas. The Christmas season, with its famous twelve days, will begin on Christmas Eve.
But let’s face it — for most of the people around us, it has already begun. In fact, judging from the decorations in some stores, it looks as if we have been well into the Christmas season for a few weeks already. We heard the Christmas carols playing in a store last week, before Thanksgiving. At least one retailer, Nordstrom, makes a point of their “restraint” in kicking off the season only four and a half weeks early! For many years now, the retail culture has adjusted its own liturgical calendar to ensure that Christmas comes early enough to give us plenty of time to shop.
By December 26, of course, there will be no sign of Christmas in the malls. Once the hijacking of the holiday has achieved its purpose, the tinsel will disappear before you can sing “two turtle doves”, and we’ll be off to the next sales event.
So, there’s the tension between the Church’s calendar and that of the broader community. This week, as retailers jingle their bells and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” rings out over the Walmart loudspeakers, the Church will prepare to enter a season of measured restraint, hope, and expectation, watching for the Coming Christ. And in a few weeks, as boxes of chocolate for St. Valentine’s Day replace the singing Santa statues on the sales shelves, we will finally break forth in our glad song: Hodie Christus natus est. Gloria in excelsis Deo!
And that’s okay with me. I’m not interested in a campaign to “take back our holy day”. Living with the contrast between our Veni Emmanuel and the local superstore’s “Little Drummer Boy” is a reminder to me that, in some ways, we really are a people out of time. Our lives are set to a different calendar, a different daily rhythm, a different focus.
That is as it should be. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel reading. John uses the word cosmos (Ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου.), which means “order” or “system”. It is not that Jesus’ concerns are other-worldly — the very fact of the Incarnation shows a deep concern with this world. But Jesus’ system is markedly different, and he calls his followers to a different way of being in this world.
So, let us walk with gentleness, courtesy, and love through these days of the “Christmas shopping season”. Enjoy the holiday parties. Sing along with the Muzak tracks, if you wish. Go ahead and deck your halls. We are, after all, part of both systems, and our vilification of our neighbors’ traditions does nothing to advance the cause of the Gospel.
But when Twelfth Night comes and your neighbor says, “Hey, Christmas was more than two weeks ago. Why are there still lights on your house?”, you can smile and respond, “I’m glad you asked …”