A recent article says,
“The gravy was still warm. The Dallas Cowboys were still in uniform. Thanks were still being given across the country as the pilgrimages to the stores began. Lured by earlier-than-ever Black Friday sales, people left Grandma and Grandpa in search of Samsung and Toshiba. They did not go blindly. In dozens of interviews, people acknowledged how spending has become inseparable from the holidays.” One shopper acknowledged uncomfortably, “You have to have these things to enjoy your children and your family…it shouldn’t be that way but in a sense there’s no way around it. Everything ends up with a dollar amount. Even your happiness.”
So here we are again. It is the season of Advent. How did we get here?
You know that there are Christian and pseudo Christian sects that claim Christmas and Easter began as pagan holidays. They are partly correct. Christmas used to be the celebration to the Sun god. December 25 was his feast in the Roman Empire. But a funny thing happened to the Roman Empire from AD 30 to AD 350. You see, during that time period Christianity grew from three thousand to 33 million. A skeptic would say that the emperor Constantine in 315AD changed Rome from paganism to Christianity, that politics and power caused Christianity to ‘win’ the war for the culture. But to do that is to be not only naive but wrong.
Constantine didn’t make the Roman Empire Christian, Jesus did–through his followers known as the ‘Church.’
All that is to say is that the Christians were so effective in their evangelism efforts that they stole time right out from under the world. You see, Christmas and Easter are not so much compromises with the pagan Roman Empire as much as they are evidence that Christianity absorbed and redefined that culture, not through politics and aggression, but through the message of the gospel and a community that embodied that message. The Son conquered the sun. The Incarnation surpassed pagan celebration and redefined how the world ordered their time and society. That is why, outside of academic circles we still say B. C. and A.D.–before Christ and Anno Domini–the year of our Lord.
The Church rightly discerned in the 4th and 5th centuries that, like Easter, spiritual preparation for Christmas was necessary. This was another way to rehabilitate the former pagan season to a Christian one. Advent, or Nativity Lent as it is also called, became the preparation time for ‘Feast of the Nativity’ or the Christ-mass.
Why do we continue this? Why Advent? More than ever we need to order our time in a way that is Christ honoring and Christ centered. If Jesus Christ is the center of our Faith and our existence, it makes sense to make every day of the year, and especially the times up to Christmas and Easter, Christological–Christ centered and Christ focused.
Two weeks ago we had basically the same gospel reading from Mark. Advent is a time when we talk about Christ’s second coming as well as his first. Our Catechism says,
Q. What do we mean by the coming of Christ in glory?
A. By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ
will come, not in weakness but in power, and will make
all things new.
I want to continue our reflection, not so much to explain the second coming but to do what Jesus is doing in our gospel. He’s providing what our culture has no concept of. Perspective. Advent is the Church’s gif to us. Two points today simply put , this life is temporal yet it is the life God has given us to be stewards of.
This life is temporal. It’s part of our vocation as Christians to get people ready to meet Jesus. It is part of our message that all things are temporary, only God is eternal.
When we read the writings of many of the saints, they seemed obsessed with death. Thomas A Kempis in the Imitation of Christ says, ‘always be mindful of the day of your death.’
I can tell you that it is very sad to see folks who have no hope and no faith in Christ as they deal with their own death and mortality. It is like the end of the world. Life without Christ, life without God is a very lonely and desolate place to be.
Part of my job is to give last rites and to have those discussions about preparedness for death. I can tell you not all of those discussions are goods ones. Many deaths are peaceful. But a few are not. But even with this perspective there is hope.
Our catechism again:
Q. What is the Christian hope?
A. The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness
and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in
glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the
Even in death there is hope. Even in the second coming of Christ a time of judgment, there is hope. That is what Jeremiah talks about today.
Christ’s return is reparative, not destructive; hopeful, not frightening. St. Cyril of Alexandria says, ‘Christ will transform things for the better. He will renew creation and refashion the nature of people to what it was in the beginning…he grants those that believe in him to be conformed to the likeness of his glorious body.’
But we would be amiss not to talk about being stewards of this life, too. The Old Chinese saying, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second best time to plant a tree is right now.
When Jesus speaks of signs in the heavens and the Son of Man coming in great glory, it is not to get us guessing about the end of the world as much as it is to say, ‘be accountable for your life and how you live it, for there is a greater reality.’ “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down…with the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly.”
Weighed down indeed. “You have to have these things to enjoy your children and your family…it shouldn’t be that way but in a sense there’s no way around it. Everything ends up with a dollar amount. Even your happiness.”
Who knows who Jacob Marley is? He was Scrooge’s business partner and seven years after his death he comes to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge. Marley is covered in chains, the ends of which have money boxes on them. What are those chains? Asks Scrooge.
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Why the chains and punishment? Scrooge wonders.
Dickens writes, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through the crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have [taken] me!”
What is the chain that grips us? What is the chain that bogs us down? Money? Worries about money? Sadness? Unbelief?
This past week Sarah and I went to the funeral of a fellow priest Fr. Ralph Walker who was the rector of St. Michael and All Angels here in Denver for 37 years. There was sadness to be sure—I couldn’t help but see my own end, in his children I saw my own someday. And the parish is in mourning with his wife and children and grandchildren, and I saw my own parish someday.
I was given a gift, in that 4 months ago the two of us had lunch. I asked him to tell me about his childhood, how he found the church and about his vocation. A life well lived.
A funeral. But I have to say it felt more like a time of triumph and inspiration. Inspiration to live out my life and vocation with more faithfulness and joy and love.
“You have to have these things to enjoy your children and your family…it shouldn’t be that way but in a sense there’s no way around it. Everything ends up with a dollar amount. Even your happiness.”
What a crock. The incarnation is the most wondrous event in history. This time is a gift for us to look beyond ourselves, to Christ, and to those who are in need. The Star will take us to the manger and then to those places that need us—that need to know God’s love.