Today marks the beginning of Advent, a joyful season of preparation before the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Here in the U.S., a kind of normalcy is struggling to return, despite a recent upsurge in Covid-19 infections. Holiday decorations have been on display in the big box stores for months, and in a possibly premature celebration of the slowing of the world pandemic, trees and houses again illuminate whole neighborhoods, and Christmas carols – or perhaps more accurately, commercial carols — are heard throughout the land. In-person shopping has returned with a vengeance, including a record number of “smash and grab” burglaries from high-end shops and big-box stores from coast to coast. Thanksgiving travel was almost back to pre-pandemic levels as over 50 million Americans took to the roads and skies to celebrate the holiday elsewhere. Anywhere.
But all is not well. Since the last cycle of liturgical readings began on this Sunday three years ago, the world seems to have lurched on its axis. A new administration finally grasped the reins of power in Washington, although for the first time in history an angry mob armed with bear-spray and clubs stormed the Capitol on January 6th attempting to overthrow the elected government. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus continued to spread with terrible speed here and around the world, appearing most recently in a scary new variant. Ports are jammed with imports that can’t be moved, and there’s a shortage of Christmas trees and “goods.” Again this year, thousands of square miles of forest were incinerated in California, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest, as vast swathes of the tropical rainforests of the Amazon and Western Pacific were burned or cut down to make way for more cash crops. An upsurge of deadly tornadoes pounded the South and Midwest while flash floods devastated the east coast as the planet spirals toward a climate disaster despite the timid promises of global meetings such as COP 26.
In the U.S., consumer debt has reached an all-time high. According to a November CNN report, “Americans have never been in so much debt.” https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/09/economy/fed-household-debt-inflation/index.html
Despite a slight dip in total debt at the beginning the pandemic, the “economy” as we like to call it, is struggling valiantly to return at least to pre-pandemic levels. But that was not exactly what could be called “healthy.” U.S. households now owe more than $15 trillion dollars in total debt. Average personal debt has climbed to nearly $54,000, while average household credit card debt rose to $6270. The average American consumer has a credit card balance of about $6,375, up nearly 3 percent from last year. Total credit card debt has risen to over $800 billion.
All in all, not a lot to be joyful about. Right on cue, today’s gospel is about the end of the world – not as the Wall
Street Journal might see it, but surely a prediction of vast social and natural turmoil as the world staggers from disaster to disaster. Yet the intent is to strengthen the resolve of Jesus’ hearers to be on guard against mindless distractions and reckless indulgence. The first reading from the Book of Jeremiah holds out the promise of the advent of a truly just ruler. St. Paul, too, encourages his readers in the earliest of Christian documents, to let mutual love strengthen our hearts and guide our actions so as to be blameless before the final Advent.
These are not tidings of comfort and joy. Not yet, anyway. They are a call to prepare the way of the Lord.
In fact, neither Advent nor Christmas have anything to do with buying stuff or spending money. As I said those three long years ago and is no less true today, 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? To feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and take in the stranger – the homeless and refugees [Mat 25:34-46].
The true health of a nation or a world cannot be measured in terms of consumer debt or Gross Domestic Product or how well or badly fiscal budgets are balanced. It consists, rather, in the degree to which love, mercy, and peace increase.
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 gift is he asking us to bring to the manger?