For almost every Mass on the first Sunday of December I can remember, a (visibly angry) priest would climb to the pulpit and offer a predictable lament. The lament was that “society” had, once again, started the celebration of Christmas four weeks too early; we as faithful Catholics were strongly encouraged not to take part in this abomination.
Of course, over half of the congregation had already accepted party invitations, had presents purchased during Black Friday stashed throughout the house, and had already set up a tree. No matter!!! The priest would challenge the community not to use the “C-word” (Christmas) until December 24. Because Advent is a SERIOUS time! A QUIET time! A time to PREPARE!
Of course when the priest said this I thought to myself, “Of course it’s a time to prepare; that’s what all of the sales are for!”
This attitude did not change much when I arrived at seminary. One December for a prayer service, I led a silent mediation with George Winston’s “December” album playing in the background, a somewhat obscure collection of piano tunes that have never been featured in any Rankin/Bass production. Yet after the service, one of the other students came up to me to let me know just how over-the-top inappropriate it was for me to play Christmas music during the season of Advent… in much the same tone as one might confront another on the inappropriateness of kicking small puppies.
My own opinion in years past has been that before Thanksgiving, I don’t want to see a thing; after the fat man crosses Herald Square in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, then everyone can go nuts. So when I would encounter these rather Puritan attitudes towards Advent in the middle of December, I would just roll my eyes and chalk it up to just another example of people in the church not understanding what the real world was like. That being said, I have to confess that this year I am finally starting to see the point of the foaming priest and the indignant student.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but it’s nine days after Thanksgiving and my soul already feels like it’s eaten the equivalent of a two-pound bag of M&M’s. But because I am not yet able to admit to myself that this new found revulsion to holiday cheer is actually because I am getting older, I will simply blame the radio.
In Washington D.C., one of the radio stations has transferred over to an “All Christmas, All the Time” format. It is a testament to the quality of all of the other radio stations in DC that this is what my car radio is set to. Still, listening to this station is like having your mouth forced open so a full can of peppermint Reddi-Whip can be emptied into it. Yes, there are some classics that never get old; Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song” comes to mind.
And then there are the remakes, remakes so bad that it I actively wonder if Jesus would have still assumed bodily form if he knew ahead of time such terrible music would be written about the occasion of his birth. I mean, they do all of this government testing on NutraSweet but they let this musical nonsense continue unabated. How many remakes can they record of “Last Christmas”? All I know is that last Christmas, I thought it was the worst song ever… and yet THIS Christmas there are two new versions of this song played on a seemingly endless cycle!
I know, I know. Such comments leave me open to being labeled a “Scrooge.” Or if one is trying to be particularly post-modern, they leave me open to being open to being labeled a “Grinch.” But even those comparisons have become saccharine; I would hope with all of the Christmas villains out there, I could at least merit someone original, like the “anti-Christmas” guy in It’s A Wonderful Life. Say what you want about Mr. Potter, the man had his priorities.
So anyway, let’s just say that the importance of Advent has been beaten into me. Which is not the worst thing in the world because it has given me a greater awareness of how much I do need to prepare for Christ in my life. How much I do need quiet. Which is especially tough for me this year, not only in this environment but because as a student this is the time of finals, when the urgency of studies can obliterate any notion of life outside of school.
It is also why I was slightly surprised to hear a song on the “All Christmas Station” actually gave me a moment to reflect. I forgot which version it was, but the message of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was able to break through during a recent drive home from school. It reminded me of an aspect of God of which I need constant reminding… that the experience of God can be most often be found in quiet.
Whenever I have gone on retreat, the first few days are not necessarily spent in deep prayer but in simply trying to slow down. I try to purposely slow down so I can notice details around me, details that I am all too happy to blow past in the hurried nature of my regular life. And there are a lot of details in the world to be noticed. The number of cracks in the sidewalk and their different shapes. The different shades of color in fallen leaves. The fact that leaves tend to be glossy on one side and not the other.
It’s not so much that I find God in these details specifically. It’s not that I even find an image of the Virgin Mary hidden in the cracks of the pavement. It’s that by paying attention to these small details, my mind slows to the point so that I can also hear what is not only going on around me, but within me. This is the point when my real conversations with God typically begin.
So I guess a good first step for me over the next few weeks would be to turn off the car radio. I’ll probably have a better shot of hearing what others hear during this Advent season. And then maybe I’ll have a better understanding of what the priest and the student were talking about in the first place. And hopefully I can have a good conversation with God in the process.