THIS CHRISTMAS, PLEASE CONSIDER HELPING NEWMAN CATHOLIC AT MONTCLAIR STATE AS WE CONTINUE TO BRING CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH TO OUR STUDENTS - YOU MAKE THE DIFFERENCE: check out www.MSUNEWMAN.com FOR MORE INFORMATION. Thank You!!!
This past Thursday night, driving back to Montclair, I was still kind of feeling the happiness and the joy of a beautiful thanksgiving with my family. It’s something I’ve gotten to appreciate over the years - the time, the effort, the preparation that goes into this. Between the cleaning of the house, the shopping for the groceries, the making of the meal - my parents spent a great deal of time, effort and money just so that we could all gather together for this truly American Feast Day that was originated hundreds of years ago as a day to pause and give thanks to God for his many blessings. Something unique among all the nations of the world, that we’re the first nation to make a national holiday to Thank God.
As I was driving home in the midst of some heavy traffic, I couldn’t help but notice the parking lot packed at a local shopping center. And I found myself getting just as ticked off as I had been in the lead up to Thanksgiving as more and more stores announced they were "breaking tradition for the first time in their history" and opening on Thanksgiving Day. Not that we should’ve been surprised. "Black Friday" (so named to note when stores make enough profit that they’re in the "black") had been starting earlier and earlier in recent years - 6 am, 5 am, 3 am - midnight... I hate shopping period... could never imagine waking up early (when you don’t have to) just to shop. Well it was almost a game of chicken between stores opening earlier and earlier. And once it happened, someone opened before Midnight, its gottten more and more out of hand – You’re opening at 10 PM Thanskgiving Night, well then we’re going to open at 8 PM.... OH YEAH??? We’re open ALL DAY! I think we went from no one being open Thanksgiving Day last year to the point that this year a majority of stores (and Malls) opened at least in the evening on Thanksgiving if not for the entire day. I’m afraid to ask who’s going to go after Christmas next and decide to stay open all Christmas Eve into Christmas Day.
I’m not trying to make people who went shopping on Black Friday Eve (which we used to call Thanksgiving Day) feel bad. I have friends and family who’ve made this a bonding time that they look forward too. And I don’t want to go through a litany of stories about near-riots over $98 Television sets. Go google that if you want to read about that relatively recent annual tradition that happens now as a result of all this (and while you’re googling that, take a look at some financial news stories that prove how people don’t really end up getting any greater deals on Black Friday then they could’ve on Veterans Day or in a week or two)
Why it’s bothered me so much is that it really is an assault on our collective need for a
"Sabbath" - for a day of rest - for a pause from the ordinary, the routine, the rat-race, the stress. That used to be done on a weekly basis on Sundays. For those of you from Bergen County where "blue laws" still exist and malls are closed on Sunday’s (which I still wonder how long they will be able to hold out on that) that used to be common everywhere. This notion of "Sabbath" – which it was one of the big 10 that God commanded of us by the way (actually, last time I checked the Bible, it still is) – and its meant for us to do on a weekly basis... At least on Thanksgiving, this was one of the few times left that we as a nation we did this. Stop and give thanks to God for His blessings and to enjoy those blessings. I can’t help but feel sad that for so many people who had to work that day - those who are trying to make ends meet, those trying to support their families who had no choice but to work that day. This "truce" which used to exist to give everyone a break has been violated and that we’re all stressing each other out even more than we already were. But what’s bothered me even more is this deeper issues: that more and more of us are buying into the lie that what matters, what’s most important is that we need to buy stuff in order for Christmas to be Christmas.
What we really need are pauses, we need breaks, we need space to focus on more important things, more eternal things. For example, for me and my family this Thanksgiving Day, I remembered previous thanksgivings where a loved one was seriously ill and we could barely even eat we were so racked with anxiety; or years when someone who had been with us the previous year was no longer with us - and that pain could never be alleviated by purchasing a door buster... it could only be soothed by being around others who shared that pain. Those thanksgivings that were "hard to get through" reminded all of us – whether we were the most devout of Catholic-Christians or even those who might be "somewhat agnostic" – that there exists more important things than those of this world. And that made a more peaceful, joyful Thanksgiving like this years was for me, that much more special.
That’s why this season of Advent that the Church gifts us with is so important in this manic, fast paced world of ours. That’s why when you come to Mass, you don’t hear the exultant joy of all the Christmas music being piped in all the shopping centers and in TV commercials until the actual Feast of Christmas. That’s why the Gloria that we usually sing at the beginning of Mass, which is the quintessential Christmas hymn, is omitted for now. The Church has a more subdued liturgy designed to force us to pause, to take a break, giving us some space to think about important things, breaking away from the ordinary to think of eternal things in a new way. It’s not like we who gather here don’t know who’s birthday is coming that we have to pretend to be surprised Christmas Day .... And it’s not like we haven’t heard multiple times of the "end times" where Jesus will return again and this world will cease.
Advent is meant to make us remember those historical realities - one that has come and one that is to come, all from our own vantage points, from our own perspectives, from our own need to connect with that eternal, universal longing for God that exists in the heart and soul of humanity. To pause, to break, to recognize quite simply but profoundly that: We need God. We need Jesus Christ. And that’s something we need to remember each day of our lives – the length of which is an ultimate mystery to us, which is why Jesus is warning us in today’s Gospel to be awake and prepared at all times to meet him, to expect to encounter him... We need to be prepared by being connected to God all the time. Our retired Pope Benedict once said "To celebrate Advent means to bring to life within ourselves the hidden presence of God."
As we come here tonight - fresh from Thanksgiving break; anxious over the last few weeks of the semester with exams, papers and other end of the semester responsibilities looming (sorry to remind you of that), trying to get Christmas gifts for family and friends you weren’t able to purchase on Thanksgiving (Hahaha) we can list numerous ways and reasons that we’re being distracted from celebrating Advent. That Advent has become a quaint notion that remotely comes to mind when we’re able to break away from the daily stresses that seem to be multiplying on an hourly basis.
Yet the Lord is calling us to make space for just that... to pull away from all those responsibilities and reflect on these more eternal, more important - even though they remain somewhat hidden realities. To acknowledge our need, our dependence on Him. To remember that we have been given intimacy and connectedness to Him with the gift of Christmas, and even more importantly, the gift of Easter where he rose from the dead after that original "Black Friday." That His presence is within our reach (if we can let go of some of the more earthly things we feel the desperate need to cling to)
Much like taking the time to rest and recharge with loved ones at Thanksgiving (instead of rushing around shopping, seeking merely materialistic satisfaction), may this season of Advent be a graced filled time for us to acknowledge that longing in our hearts for God and reconnect with Him. Who offers himself to us as the only gift that ultimately matters: an eternity of peace, happiness and fulfillment - true fulfillment - and a joy that no one can take from us.