Advent is short this year. This is your warning! The fourth week of Advent is a whopping one day long — just Sunday — and Christmas is the very next day.
You may not realize that the first Sunday of Advent is the first day of the Catholic liturgical year. It’s a beginning, not a culmination or a final push, or anything of the sort. So it’s a little odd to speak of whether or not we’re ready for Advent, because Advent is, itself, the preparation time. Nevertheless, it’s smart to stop and think just how we’re going to mark Advent as Catholics.
And yes, it is supposed to be somewhat spare, somewhat solemn, somewhat silent. As a season, it is anticipatory, rather than celebratory; preparatory, rather than marked with excess.
A tall order, when everyone around you is full engaged with all the fun, elaborate, lavish stuff that most people (Catholic and secular) enjoy in the weeks before Christmas. Although Catholics spend Advent as a “little Lent” in preparation for the birth of Jesus, it’s extremely hard to pull this off unless you’re living in a community of people who are doing the same. What are you going to do, offend everyone by refusing to go to parties, refusing to sing happy songs, refusing to eat the cookies they baked just for you, refusing to let your kids get dressed up in fancy clothes with their schoolmates? As the great theologian Chico Marx once said, “That’s-a no good.”
How to thread the needle? How do we recognize the solemnity of Advent as a time of preparation, without coming across as a quasher of joys, which is the least Christian thing you can be?
I recently heard one of my older kids spontaneously counseling her younger sister on how to deal with classmates who believe in Santa Claus (which my kids don’t). She said that it’s okay if other kids want to believe in the story, because it’s a nice story. We like to think more about Jesus being born than we do about Santa Claus coming, but it’s not our job to make other people sad at Christmastime.
“So,” my older daughter concluded in a sisterly fashion, “Just keep your mouth shut.”
I would refine this advice a bit and say it this way: Keep Advent and Christmas in your own way, but always be generous when dealing with others who keep it in a different way. If we claim to understand the true meaning of Advent and Christmas, if we are aware that this is a holy season meant to start the liturgical year with a dark lantern slowly opening up to reveal the light and glory of our savior incarnate, then we won’t achieve that by diving into an orgy of judgmentalness, crabbyness, or rants about how all those croddy secular people don’t understand the true meaning of Christmas. If it’s wrong to gorge on cookies and electronic toys on December 25th, it’s also wrong to gorge on cynicism and criticism in the name of Christ.
It’s hard. It’s hard not to feel like you’re at war with your neighbor. When so many of the people who surround you are literally voting to change your world in a way that you know will make things worse, it’s almost impossible to remember that these people are, in fact, your neighbors — more, your brothers and sisters in Christ. But they are. Christ was born for them just as much as He was born for you; and it’s your very clear mission to convey the joy of His coming to them. You simply can’t do this if by weaponizing the Baby Jesus and turning the season into a chance to show the secular world how awful they are. That’s simply not how it’s done.
So as we face Advent, let’s make one resolution: To “remember what Christmas is all about” by not being a jerk about Christmas to secular people. Christ came to bring joy to the world. Resolve to prepare for and celebrate His birth by doing the same.