The calendar this year must surely cause the beast of the marketplace to salivate: This year there is the maximum number possible of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. We have even more days to shop till we drop, to plan, to make lists, to decorate, to wrap, to bake, to budget (or not). We have more time to beat some hesitating driver out for a mall parking space, more time to feel murderous if we hear one more overproduced Christmas carol, more time to get lost in the rush to commercialize a spiritual observance. As Charlie Brown asks in the enduring and endearing Christmas special, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"
When we were young parents, my husband and I thought that going into substantial credit card debt in order to pull off the magic of Christmas was the way to go. I think we are still paying some of that off, and our daughters are long grown to adulthood. Swearing off credit several years ago helped our hearts, like the Grinch's, to grow "three sizes," because we learned that our daughters were grateful for the smallest of gifts, and that a meaningful Christmas didn't cost much money. We are not the shoppers we used to be. We are older and humbler.
The scarcely noticed season of Advent takes place during the same period of time as the countdown of shopping days until Christmas. Advent is a good time to reflect on the words my husband recently saw on a church billboard in Los Angeles: "Christmas: It's not your birthday." It makes me stop and think: It's not! It is, rather, the season of Incarnation, the coming of God-made-flesh and dwelling among us, a mystery that boggles the practical mind and invites a leap of faith. Rather than counting the shopping days, perhaps we would be better served to consider the remaining time in December before this holy feast as "Only 17 Thoughtful Days Until Christmas."
I am not suggesting that we stop gathering our families together under a twinkling tree, or cease baking cookies or giving each other presents. But I am suggesting that we question the Black Friday mentality, the ruthless preparation and acquisition of stuff in service of tradition, and focus instead on the journey. The path that has led us to this Christmas and the path that leads us away into an unknown future merit our attention. Does this path follow the footsteps of Jesus? Do we travel it lightly, or are we dragging things with us that hold back our progress? Are we taking the time to pause and discern God's will for us, or is there no room in our busy schedule for that kind of stillness? Seventeen days, or even 17 minutes of each of those days, would be a helpful amount of time to surrender to the thoughtfulness that living a conscious life requires.
During Advent, we use candles to quiet the mind and open the heart. Each candle lit is a reminder to step back from the commercial madness, and think. On each subsequent day of the Advent season, we come closer to the revelation that we are called to see the world in God's light. A purple, a purple, a pink, and one last purple, and we burn along with them in the growing hope that the world is ready to blaze again with the glory of God incarnate.
Then, on Christmas, the world is alight in grace. For one luminous day, we believe that peace is possible, that love can rule, that light can overcome shadow. This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown: it reignites our flame of faith in the power of love. Jesus arrives anew, making us mindful of his presence. We have 17 thoughtful days left until Christmas.