17 November 2019

Homily - 17 November 2019 - On a culture of instant gratification and Christmas

The Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Have you noticed something odd or out of place these past many days? I certainly have, and I am sure you have, too. Already before the Solemnity of All Saints, garlands and ornaments were hung in stores; holiday lights began illuminating the autumn darkness; and Christmas trees were seen through living room windows.

As I say, all of these are out of place for this time of the year. Many people will disagree with me, but this is because too many Christians have, first, forgotten the liturgical year and, second, forgotten that Christians are supposed to be distinct from the world. If we were supposed to live according to the standards of the world, Jesus’ warning that “You will be hated by all because of my name” would be meaningless, and we know that nothing Jesus said or did was meaningless (Luke 21:17).

With the liturgical year and its calendar, time itself takes a new and profound meaning. No longer is the passing of time the slow march towards death, but it becomes the way in which “the Church celebrates the whole mystery of Christ, from the Incarnation to Pentecost Day and the days of waiting for the Advent of the Lord.”[1] For those who follow the liturgical year, it is a source of many blessings, for

Just as the Lord has punctuated the sky with stars, and the fields with flowers, and the years with seasons, so has he punctuated the seasons themselves with feast days, that by this distinction made from the daily services, the holy solemnities may lead slothful characters, at least after a time, willingly back to prayer, and idle minds may by these annual feasts make themselves ready for the Lord.[2]

“In fact, throughout the course of the year the Church unfolds the entire mystery of Christ and observes the birthdays of the Saints.”[3]

Liturgical Christmas Time, the authentic Christmas season, “runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6;” this year, in the United States of America, it will last until January 12th.[4] The authentic Christmas season has nothing to do with the commercialization of a great and holy feast that has everything to do with the immense and almost unimaginable love God has for sinful humanity.

For whatever reason, more and more Americans are anticipating holidays and holy days earlier and earlier. As but one example, in some places, Trick-or-Treating was held more a week before Halloween. As I said a moment ago, Christmas decorations are already erupting seemingly everywhere, and we have not even arrived at Thanksgiving. All of this saddens me. The culture of instant gratification has forgotten how to wait in patience and so has lost much of the joy these special days once brought.

About this time every year, several people share an article on various social media with a headline to the effect of, “Putting Christmas decorations up in September is good for you.”[5] The bold claim of the headline is based on the words of Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown, who said, “Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extends the excitement.”[6] My experience, at least, contradicts his words; lots of people decorate earlier and earlier each year, yet they do not seem any happier going about town; quite the opposite seems to be true. Even if his claim is true, we have to ask ourselves what Christmas is about; is it about some fuzzy feeling linked to receiving gifts, or is it instead about the manifestation of God’s love for us on the day when the sun of justice arose with its healing rays (cf. Malachi 3:20)?

At the risk of sounding like an old man – I am only 41, which, for some, myself included, seems old – the secular observance of Christmas is not today what it was twenty years ago. When I was in high school and college, I had the great pleasure of getting paid to play for seven years: I was first hired by Kay-Bee Toys as a Parental Video Game Advisor, a seasonal position that led to my being hired as a regular sales associate. Then, it was rare to see Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving or to hear Christmas music (which then actually sang about the Birth of the Savior instead of mere sleighs and snow); indeed, if you put up decorations before Thanksgiving, people thought you were being ridiculous; not is almost expected. Shopping about for gifts was a mostly enjoyable experience, with greetings of “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” being heard many times each day. Helping shoppers find a gift for someone was usually fun. Back then, "Black Friday" was called "Green Friday," before customers started shoving each other, because half of our annual sales were made on that one day.

In more recent years, however, things are vastly different. Last year, for example, I kept track of the number of times a cashier wished me either Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas; the total, sadly, came to zero. What have we allowed to happen?

Some will say, “Father, society has changed today; that’s simply the way it is and we cannot change it.” To those who might say this, I remind you that we are part of society and that some seventy percent of the American people still claim to be Christians.[7] It’s high time we lived like Christians. Saint Augustine once rightly said, “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good, and the times will be good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”[8]

I do not raise this issue today to be a Grinch (the cartoon is better than the movie) or a Scrooge (The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best version of the classic work by Charles Dickens). Rather, I raise it to up us recover the joy of the holy days that are yet to come and to help us “to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.”[9] I do not want to exhaust ourselves with premature celebrations; I want us instead to enter fully into the liturgical year so that its beauty, peace, and joy can be ours.

If our mindset is to anticipate Christmas rather than to celebrate the actual day with its following season, we will miss the beauty and the hope the season of Advent offers, and Christmas Day will lack something of the sacred joy that should permeate it. If we anticipate our holidays and holy days so much so far in advance, by the time they actually arrive we will already be worn down and ready to move on to the next anticipation, only for the cycle to keep perpetuating.

This coming Sunday, the liturgical year enters its final week with the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In two weeks, the liturgical year will begin anew as we enter into the season of Advent with its “twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.”[10] It is against this backdrop that we heard the warning of the Prophet Malachi: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble” (Malachi 3:19).

Let each one of us, then, humble ourselves and submit to the liturgical calendar, seeking to enter into each aspect of the mystery of the life of Christ Jesus. Let us reject the busy commercialization of what are meant to be holy and reflective days. Let us strive to prepare ourselves for the Second Coming of the Messiah through the season of Advent, so that we might “not act in a disorderly way,” but might instead imitate the great Saints of the Church who strove to unite themselves to Christ in every aspect of their lives (II Thessalonians 3:11; cf. II Thessalonians 3:7). Amen.

[1] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, 17.
[2] Saint Paulinus of Nola, in James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 259.
[3] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, 1.
[4] Ibid., 32.
[5] “Putting Christmas decorations up in September is good for you,” Hully Daily Mail, 16 September 2019. Accessed 16 November 2019. Available at https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/putting-christmas-decorations-up-september-3323337.
[6] In ibid.
[7] Cf. Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study. Accessed 16 November 2019. Available at https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
[8] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the New Testament, 30.8.
[9] Roman Missal, Collect for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[10] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, 39.

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