There seem to be two favorite pastimes of seminarians at the beginning of Advent: 1) expressing disdain for all the materialistic people and corporations who are misappropriating the birth of Christ and creating a strife-ridden, idolatrous, sacrilegious mess of Christmas; 2) stressing out about all the papers, exams, and various applications we have to complete during Advent.
I had a slightly different perspective on #1 (disdain for the shopping craze) this year. My daughter has a retail job at a mall and was required to work from 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving to 8 a.m. on “Black Friday.” So I drove her to the mall and saw some cars already parked there, an hour before the stores were supposed to open. And then I picked her up at 8 a.m. and watched shoppers coming out of the store. This was the first time I have ever been to a mall on Black Friday.
What I saw were not stressed out suburbanites laden with bags upon bags of Christmas purchases. What I did see were people coming out of the mall with one or two bags: a man in his thirties came out with a box of work boots. A mother with three teenaged girls came out, each of them carrying one small bag from a lingerie store. Three women who look like they do physical work during the week stood at the curb with two bags each from J.C. Penney’s, waiting for their friend or family member to pick them up. Two women walked out of Macy’s, each of them carrying one packaged down quilt in her arms.
And I was chastened. These were people coming to the mall on the biggest shopping day of the year because they need a pair of shoes for work, and Black Friday may be the only day they can afford the shoes. These are people making minimal purchases. (If you have ever shopped for lingerie for teenagers, you know that one item can be expensive.) These are people who are probably buying underwear and socks in bulk for their kids at J.C. Penney’s. These are people looking for a deal on bedding for their family members as the winter approaches; with down quilts, they can turn the heat down at night. They all needed to save money in this difficult economy.
These are the people that Jesus came for: people who need work boots and a steady job, people who need warm clothing and bedding in the winter. He came for teenaged girls who want one piece of fancy lingerie (and their ambivalent mothers). He came for my daughter, limping out of the store at 8 a.m. after 8 hours on her feet because she wants to make enough money to buy her mother something special for her ordination. He came for the stressed out suburbanites who did yell at my daughter and her coworkers at 5 a.m. when the shop girls couldn’t find shopping bags big enough for all the purchases.
He came for me and other seminarians who gripe about papers and exams and internship tasks due during Advent, perhaps to remind us that we are not wasting our time reading books written by holy people who cared a lot about Jesus. He came for me and other seminarians who want this to be a holy time but feel that other people–the shoppers, the seminaries, the admissions committees, the CPE program administrators, employers–are the ones making it an unholy time.
The more I think about it, Jesus only took a little time now and then for quiet prayer as he waited for his important day to approach. It’s not as if he had four weeks of work-free bliss at any time in his ministry. And as any woman in her last month of pregnancy knows, there is still work to do while the parents wait with joyful expectation and wonderment for the great arrival. The trick is to work joyfully while we wait, and to take frequent, small moments for rest and prayer.
With that said, I need to get back to work on two papers, some Ph.D. applications, and a sink full of pots and pans. (It’s amazing how clean my apartment gets when I have a dreaded paper to write.) But I promise not to complain–anymore–about these, uh, blessed tasks.
In the meantime, may God richly bless all those, poor and rich, who seek to make Christmas for themselves and others this year. And may God give all of us who are called to preach the good news about Advent charitable hearts toward the rest of the sheep.