It’s a wonderful time of year! For old-fashioned Christians, today marks the beginning of Advent, a joyful season of preparation before the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But to all intents and purposes (at least commercial ones), Christmas has been here for some time already. Thanksgiving has (barely) come and gone, but the “holiday decorations” have been on display in the big box stores for two months, garishly decorated trees and houses light up the landscape, and recorded Christmas carols are heard throughout the land, often twisted to advertise “product.” Shopping is on everyone’s minds – or at least their computer and TV screens.
The Spirit of Capitalism has triumphed again. Bigly. For the first time I can recall, there wasn’t a single airing on mainstream television this year of a religious celebration marking Thanksgiving and very few portraying the traditional family dinner. And even those often tended toward the comedic and satirical if not scurrilous. Americans now spend Thanksgiving afternoon shopping – or watching football games on TV while munching on pizza. Not too many years ago, some stores first began sneakily opening on Thanksgiving night, but it’s now an all-day affair. Who has time or energy to spend with the family at home when the mall is so tempting? Black Friday is well-named.
Once again, Americans splurged, setting spending records. And credit card debt rose proportionately. The fine print (only for the stout-hearted):
Average credit card debt has grown by 52% since the year 2000. In 2017 US households owed $13.15 trillion in total debt, about $931 billion of it as credit card debt. The average household card debt was close to $16,000. Total credit card debt has now reached its highest point ever, surpassing $1 trillion, according to a report issued last January by the Federal Reserve. As of May, total revolving credit balances were $1.04 trillion, an increase of 5% percent from the previous year. Americans are paying over $100 billion in credit card interest and fees alone, up 35% from 5 years ago. Bottom line: the average American has a credit card balance of about $6,375, up nearly 3 percent from last year.
At this point, the birth of Jesus may be pretty far from our minds. But one way or another, it is now officially Advent, and our thoughts turn suitably enough to the end of the world. Neither Advent nor Christmas have much if anything to do with buying stuff or spending money. They have everything to do with ultimacies — getting ready, preparing
ourselves to greet Our Lord when he comes in glory. And if I got my catechism right, when he gets here, he’s not going to ask us about consumer debt or our credit rating, but our credibility. Did we really believe what he said when he told us to be ready, watchful, prepared? To have our loins girt and oil in our lamps? To make friends with the Mammon of Iniquity, to assist the poor, and forgive our brothers and sisters while there is still time?
The readings from Hebrew scripture for this Advent season come from Jeremiah, Baruch, Zephaniah, and Micah. Each accentuates the message we hear so clearly in today’ readings and throughout the gospel of Luke, the need for justice. The first reading from Jeremiah sets the tone — the need to bring God’s justice to the world. In this short reading, the words for justice and righteousness appear four times in just two verses. All the prophets we will be hearing during the coming weeks repeat the message — “The Lord our Justice!” That’s to be our business this season.
In his letter to the Christians of Thessalonica, St. Paul widens the scope to include love — for each other and for all. For there is no true justice without charity, and no charity without justice, and no peace without both of them. He prays that God will increase their love and that they — and we — will live in a way acceptable before God. Justly and lovingly.
Jesus was very clear about that, according to Luke: “Be on guard lest your hearts become heavy from indulgence and drunkenness and cares of this life…. Be on the watch.” Despite all the woeful signs of a world ill-prepared to meet its Lord, he does not counsel despair or self-reproach, however. “Look up, lift up your heads!” he says. Why? Not because you paid off the interest on your credit card, but “because your redemption is drawing near.”
The real health of a nation cannot be measured in terms of Gross Domestic Productivity or how well or badly the fiscal budget is balanced. It consists, rather, in the degree to which love, mercy, and peace increase. “What does the LORD require of you,” the prophet Micah asks, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8.]
As Advent begins, it is a good time to take stock. How are we preparing to greet Our Lord when he comes? How will we as a people acquit ourselves in terms of the justice, peace, and compassion we are called to manifest to the world, especially to the weak, oppressed, and suffering? Will each of us be able to say that our values and attitudes were shaped more by the message of the gospel than the massage of the social media and the proclamations of our political leaders? After all, Advent is a time of joyful expectation, not of dread.
When Christmas finally rolls around, long after we are saturated with the plastic decorations, canned carols, animated cartoons about the early life of Santa Claus and Rudolf, and the endless accumulation of unneeded and often unwanted merchandise, what will we have in our hearts to offer the new-born King of the World? What does he really want from me and you? What is he asking us to bring to the stable?