An Advent Composition of Place

Last week, I issued a kind of misanthrope’s manifesto for Advent, encouraging various forms of devout, anti-social behavior under the pretext of seceding from a commercialized Christmas season. Comments both on the article and on Facebook suggest that a few readers took me too literally — in much the way that some misread my Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living, in which I advised that pious Americans adopt the Filipino custom and mark Good Friday with a genuine, non-lethal crucifixion or serve the kids a plate of Easter Bunny fricassee. But if you do, make sure not to skimp on the mustard.

Now it’s time to address the rest of you, those who are not in fact seeking excuses for avoiding co-workers and family members, fellow-parishioners and sermons delivered in English: Can Advent, held under current conditions, be meaningful?

I think it can — that we can squeeze the many lemons we are presented with each day and make a bittersweet sorbet that suits the real season we mark starting Sunday: the ambiguously penitent time of waiting for the Savior. Yes, we are being bombarded with pleas to buy, buy, buy, as Black Friday gives way to Cyber Monday, then Shoplifting Saturday and Dumpster-Diving Sunday. And if we all stopped buying, the Keynesians running our country assure us, the whole economy would collapse. Massive stores would close, the jobless would crowd the soup kitchens, and blood would run in the streets.

I don’t know about that, but I do know that our relatives would look at us kind of funny when we accepted their gifts and handed them back, say, a card that promised a Novena of Masses by the Fraternity of St. Peter. Though I do think an old-fashioned children’s edition of the old Baltimore Catechism — complete with its Goofus and Gallant drawings of sinful and pious kids in crew cuts — makes a perfect gift for one’s godchildren. As I used to say when handing over such presents, “Here’s some guilt from Uncle John.”

But let’s posit that you’re shopping. You’re going to premature Christmas parties, where trimmings are aggressively secular. (St. Nicholas of Myra is reduced to selling us Cokes.) And whatever the climate you’re living in — I’m currently down in Dallas — all of your Christmases will be white because mall managers have sprayed it with fake snow. The only Nativity scene you see is the one in your home — where you’re leaving the manger empty till Christmas Eve — and the only Advent wreath is the one you ordered from Abbey Press. Does all of this mean that you’re stuck for one whole month in cognitive dissonance, trying to think austerely expectant thoughts in the midst of all the glitz?

Well, yes, but that’s not such a bad thing, after all. It puts you in much the same position as those who historically waited for the Savior, and with just a little effort expended in what St. Ignatius called the “composition of place,” you can harness all the harmless, commercial nonsense for pious purposes. There are in fact some ways that we laymen can forcibly baptize the pagan Season.

Yes, you are trying along with the Church to wait for Christ, while you sense that most of your neighbors or family members are waiting for something else entirely: parties, gifts, or some peace and quiet when holidays end. Other people, more poignantly, are striving through all their fevered holiday prep to assemble their families for a perfect Kodak moment of mutual love and togetherness that will heal the various wounds in each person’s psyche, and make a “Christmas memory” that will sustain them for years to come. Which sadly, almost never happens. People show up, mill around, open gifts, eat and leave the Chinese restaurant (hey, I’m from NYC) with lonely hearts intact.

Keeping the liturgical year in mind amid such distractions can seem too daunting. Make it easier by remembering what the shepherds’ contemporaries were waiting for, while Mary and Joseph counted down to the birth of Christ:

  • Our ancestors in faith, the Jewish people, were not looking for the “suffering servant” predicted by Isaiah, but for another Joshua — a priestly, kingly warrior who would expel the hated Roman occupiers and restore the Kingdom of Israel, as prologue to subduing their pagan neighbors, overturning their false gods and imposing on earth a worldwide reign of justice and peace, by which the Jews would serve as a “light to the nations,” a benevolent empire of Law.
  • Our forefathers in law, the Romans, if they were waiting for anything, dreamed of a world-changing emperor along the lines foretold by Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue:

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise,
Befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own
Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,
This glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin….

Instead of that paranoid pervert, Tiberius.

Christian thinkers came to see in Virgil a pagan expectation of Christ — which is how the pagan prophetesses, the Sibyls, found their way into the Sistine Chapel and the Church’s funeral Mass (the Dies Irae: “Thus the sibyl sang of old/ Thus hath holy David told.”) Much as I’d like to extend divine Revelation to pagans like Virgil (and even more, to Aristotle), this theory is rather unlikely. The Romans were really hoping for peace and order, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. They’d had their own share of crosses — in the form of the thousands upon which their nobles executed Spartacus and his army of revolutionary slaves.

  • Those emblems of the gentiles who would come to accept the Savior, the Three Wise Men, were looking, as best we can tell, for a brilliant philosopher king or prophet along the lines of Zoroaster, who would promulgate a new law among the nations. And they weren’t far off, come to think of it.

In fact, none of these people were wholly disappointed in Christ. It wasn’t that they had expected too much, but much too little. The Messiah who would come would redeem far more than the hopes of occupied Israel; he’d redeem the souls of the whole besmeared human race. The King who would come would indeed bring to earth a “golden race,” in the form of the saints who would brighten the sad face of the empire — and spread Rome’s culture along with her new faith through a hundred barbarian tribes. The Prophet whom the Magi sought would in fact transform religious life across the earth and challenge ancient creeds that lingered from Persia to Patagonia.

So as we shoulder the crowds, and wait on the lines, and wrap up our gifts, we can think of all these things not as distractions from the Mystery, but the gray, benevolent shadows that it casts — the lesser, but still good things that God’s bounty has granted us, which we look to when our eyes are too tired or timid to stare at the Son.