No Humbugs Please: 1st Sunday of Advent
I spent five years in seminary in the Chicago area. I hope you’ll believe that I mean nothing against the city when I say it isn’t for me. No surprise there from a small-town boy from the Shawnee. But…there was one time each year that I adored the city. This time. I’d catch a train down to the Loop and walk up and down the big avenues: Michigan, State, all that. The famous lights on all the trees along Michigan, the crowds packing every block… and every single person in a fantastic mood. Everyone thinking about people they love. This is the one month of the year that I really do find that mile to be “magnificent!” You’ve got a pretty good chance that snowflakes will be falling down on the whole scene, and it’s just… well, it’s totally magical.
Last time I made this scene I saw one jarring discord. There was a group of people, some sort of Christian or other, who were there…protesting! They had a bullhorn and signs and everything. It was something about commercialism and materialism and keeping Christ in Christmas. And I thought, “Is this who we are? Is this who we’ve become? Are Christians now the people who are in a bad mood at Christmastime?”
I looked at that group and thought, “you’re doing it wrong.” With that in mind, here are some helpful do’s and don’ts about Advent. This might be the most practical sermon you ever hear me give.
- Don’t be a humbug. Christians are the people who are in a bad mood at Christmas because everyone else is doing it wrong. This is the time of year when the light of Christ is easiest to see, when it reaches so many people who don’t feel it the rest of the year. Yes, they may get certain things a little wrong. Yes, they may miss the point. But even if it’s a reflection of a reflection of a reflection, the birth of Christ has glimmered in the darkness. We should be looking for opportunities to fan that glimmer into a flame, not snuffing it out because Christmas is our thing and they’re messing it up. No humbuggery, please. What are you so upset about? “Well they aren’t keeping Advent.” Oh. Well how do you keep Advent? “By complaining about people who don’t.”
- Nevertheless, Do focus on Advent as much as you reasonably can. It goes by in a flash, every year, you know it does! Advent must be kept. It must be observed, savored like the last sip of wine. You can do this without getting mad at everyone else for jumping straight ahead to Christmas. Don’t worry about them, you keep Advent!
- Do make Advent about something more than waiting. Sometimes when we give a treat to the family dog we dangle it for a moment and make him sit still before he gets the treat. Advent is not like that. It isn’t being forced to sit still and show discipline before we’re allowed the treat of Christmas. Advent is about waiting, in a way, but I think preparation is a better word. It’s an active sort of waiting. It’s about preparing to receive the Lord, and that’s an important task. Four weeks isn’t long to spend on it. Wait, shouldn’t we always be prepared for the Lord? Of course. Just like we should always be thankful, but we have a holiday to really focus on it. We have Advent to really focus on preparing for the Lord.
- Don’t be unhappy, especially about buying presents. You won’t hear me putting down Christmas presents. I am putting down all the complaining. I hear this constantly, the complaining and whining about the horrible burden of having to buy presents. Why is that? Is it that you’re just selfish and resent a burdensome obligation to buy things for certain people even though you don’t want to? I don’t think that’s usually it. More likely, you feel anxious because you want to feel like you’ve found the perfect gift, and you just haven’t. Maybe the finances aren’t there. Maybe you just can’t come up with the perfect idea. The cure for that is humility. Give whatever you’ve found with a humble, simple heart. This offering isn’t perfect, maybe it isn’t grand, but it’s from me, with all the love in my heart. If things are well with your soul, the thoughts and efforts and even the traffic and parking and shopping involved in gift-buying are occasions for happiness, because you’re doing it for someone you love. I think it would be great if we all made a pledge today: no complaining about anything related to gift-giving, not one bit. If you’re out shopping or something and it feels terribly burdensome, stop what you’re doing, sit down and silently say an Our Father and a Hail Mary, and ask God to help you figure out what’s gone wrong. Because something has gone wrong.
- Do go to confession… no excuses. Jesus gave us seven Sacraments, and if you’re trying to run a Christian life on six, well, good luck with that.
- Do take on some extra aspect of spiritual life for Advent. Something that maybe you wouldn’t commit to doing forever for all time, but can do for a month. Some out-of-the-ordinary practice of prayer or discipline or almsgiving. It could be as simple as reading through the meditation booklets we have in the back every morning. It could be a daily rosary or a half-hour or even ten minutes of silent mental prayer. It could be giving something up and giving the money you save to the poor (you can do that outside of Lent, you know!) Or coming to a daily Mass each week if your schedule allows. Or reading a good book about faith or theology - you know I’m happy to suggest them. Something extra, just for Advent, something that won’t feel burdensome but will help you prepare for the Lord.
- Do let the quiet peace of the season fill you, and trust the Holy Spirit to work in your heart. Preparing for the Lord is not so much about checking off all the boxes, it’s more about getting out of the way and removing the obstacles. God will do the work, our job is to let him. Advent is an annual reminder to open up some space for him to work. Open up space in your life, in your schedule, in your heart for the Holy Spirit to work. Blessed Advent to all of you!