Advent began on Sunday for most Western Christians (Eastern Christians have already gotten there, but they have a longer Advent). It’s an incredible season–the start of the Church’s calendar. It begins with the end. We come into Advent remembering the Day of Doom–the Lord’s Day, the Day of Judgment, Armageddon. We come remembering that on the heels of our declaration of Christ’s Kingship the week before, that every one of us in the world will have to give an account before the throne of God and His Christ. It’s a portrait of blinding darkness and pitched light. And we are called by the Spirit of Christ to wait in faithfulness and hope, confident that faith in Christ shall stand in the day of judgment.
But we also look back to the season when Christ first came–to the waiting of God’s people, longing for redemption, groaning under oppression and the ignorance of the Gentiles waiting to be enlightened. We prime ourselves for the announcement of Christ’s birth by heeding the call of John the Baptist to repentance, to be ready, and to know for certain that our rescue is close at hand, and when the Savior comes, we will find rest and solace.
It’s a beautiful season. And the Church has its calendar from ancient times as a way of framing our lives, remembering the story of Jesus, and seeing our stories transformed by that grace. But it’s not the only calendar. There are secular calendars that reinforce what James K.A. Smith has referred to as “cultural liturgies.” The day-to-day of American life has its own messages and warnings that it offers, which we could spend a fair amount of time discussing, but what I’m interested in right now, is what has just occurred in the secular calendar. In the past week, the American public has celebrated to one degree or another: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday.
We began Thursday with the expectation of feasting with family or close friends, in a cadre of delightful culinary traditions. We have some vague notion that we are commemorating the first Thanksgiving held by Non-conformist Christian settlers at Plymouth Colony and indigenous American tribes who helped them to survive. The more learned and attentive might even be able to say how “abundance” was not really the thing that was being celebrated by the community so much as “survival.” But, whatever. We’re Americans. We’ll supersize it to something worth eating. At any rate, it’s supposed to be a happy time, filled with sentimental traditions and our favorite nostalgic games and memories. The media even plays along by replaying old holiday movies in marathon format to be carried throughout the weekend.
But early or not, Black Friday comes quickly on the heels of the tryptophan engorgement. The idea of extreme savings in a consumer mob across stories that mythically places companies from being in the “red” of loss into the “black” of profit has driven a number of experiments and loud arguments that would embarrass most liturgists and worship leaders. But the fanfare of buying things for loved ones (including oneself) at heavily discounted prices has motivated a nationwide pastime and the creation of “traditions” for families. Even those who refuse to participate in the rush are defined by it, as they intentionally determine to not shop on Black Friday.
Newer additions in recent years have joined Black Friday’s corporate bailout by the American people. One is Small Business Saturday–where we are encouraged to remember our local sellers, crafters, artisans, and others, and to offer them our patronage. The other is Cyber Monday, where we are reminded that no matter the deals of Friday, the internet always has a better offer (and one wonders how many spent money on Friday to repent of not waiting for Monday…). These activities are certainly more “minor” by comparison to Thanksgiving and Black Friday but they still consume a great deal of attention and investment, and they will probably grow in importance. The American people, after all, have little to say about themselves that doesn’t involve the purchase and consumption of goods to be enjoyed. If you want to read more on that, I’ll refer you to James K.A. Smith’s description of “the liturgy of the mall” in Desiring the Kingdom.
Finally, the parade of secular feasts ends with “Giving Tuesday.” With the rise of social media, this one has gotten very big, very fast. Yesterday, I saw some dozen or so charities and non-profit fundraisers being hosted by personal friends. Philanthropic organizations were giving out matching grants like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Colleges and seminaries, social service groups and advocacy agencies, and more, were raising money. More than that, they were getting it (and as a church planter trying to find funds and grants, let me tell you it burned a bit!).
But now it’s over. Today is Wednesday. Just Wednesday after Thanksgiving on the secular calendar. But what story have we heard? What does it compare to Advent?
Oddly enough, gratitude, judgment, hope, and repentance are themes in both stories. But the way they play out is very different. In Thanksgiving, we demonstrate gratitude with incredible consumption. In Black Friday, we demonstrate hope in continued luxury by encouraging all income brackets to join in the American dream’s promise that we can all have good, enjoyable and often unnecessary things. In Small Business Saturday, we offer some repentance to our local businesses by doing penance and purchasing their goods and services. Because while we may have sold our soul to Wal-mart, there’s still just enough left to benefit them. And in Cyber Monday, we are reminded that the physical constraints of our geography and schedules do not overcome our fundamental identity as consumers. The barriers will and must be overcome. Finally, we have Giving Tuesday, because at the end of the day, we do realize it’s not only about us, and that others should be empowered, enabled, and embraced as part of this great American vision to consume. That we should be so privileged to give excesses in order for the do-gooders to have some resources with which to be a part of the community.
So, this American Thanksgiving season is very powerfully insistent as Advent breaks. Because it declares a different kingdom: where consumption is king, and our identity and rights are oriented around the hope for the things we have yet to get. It stands, silently enough, in defiance of the announcement of the Kingdom of God in Advent: where the waiting are blessed, the ready are repentant, and the haughty establishment is cast down. This is no condemnation of our various family traditions in and of themselves, but let’s be wise and make sure that story of our feasts and fasts is the story of Jesus, to whom we give thanks, and who is always present to us in the gift of Himself– in waters of baptism, in the Spirit’s outpouring, in the common meal of bread and wine (Eucharist–the true Thanksgiving feast), and in the loving fellowship of Jesus’ people in all times and all places.