It's always a struggle at this time of year to keep one's priorities straight. We're bombarded with messages—disguised as thoughtful, generous ideas—that essentially come down to the same thing: buy, buy, buy.
The radio in your car, the TV, the ads running along your email inbox, the billboards you pass, even your cell phone—beneath the noise and colorful graphics—all whisper that same message.
A really good boss needs to do this for her employees, a really good rep should do that for his clients; a really good neighbor should drop off homemade cookies; really good parents must shower their children with gifts to make Christmas "magical".
You go to a store to get a present for someone, and on the way to the department you see something your spouse needs—on sale. You already bought your spouse a gift, but how can you pass up such a deal? And on something your spouse needs?
Then you do some online shopping. Trying to keep up at work and with all the Christmas preparations, you're a little behind on this one. You find what you want, but discover that it's not guaranteed to arrive on time unless you pay double for expedited shipping.
At the grocery store, you try to stick to your list—which is already a good bit longer and more exotic than usual. Then you see the apple cider. It's not on the list, but, gee, it sure would be nice. Everyone likes it so much, and you picture the family warming themselves and their hearts over hot mugs of the stuff, and by the time you check out, there are half-a-dozen impulse items in your cart.
You think you're almost done, then you remember stocking stuffers! It's hard enough to find nice but not-too-pricey things for everyone, but then you have to keep it fair between the kids. You see a perfect item for one person, but it's more expensive than what the others will get, so you start adding to everyone else's stockings to even it up.
Meanwhile, you know that the season shouldn't be all about buying. You want to reach out to people too. So you stay up late working on Christmas cards. Then there are the decisions to make: should you include photos, or even have a special Christmas photo shoot? What about an annual Christmas letter? Whether you send hand-signed, old-fashioned cards or pre-printed postcards, either choice requires time and planning (and money). Do you have enough stamps? So-and-so moved, where's her new address? When will you have a chance to go to the post office? The whole thing can turn into a task as momentous as filing your taxes.
Then there's the tree; the decorations, indoor and out; the parties; the traveling or preparing for guests. The last-minute trips—after fighting traffic, circling the parking lot, and waiting in line—turn into two-hour ordeals.
Our consumer society ceaselessly tells us that the best way to enjoy life and even show love is through spending. The credit card commercials cleverly acknowledge that the best things in life—those that produce wonderful memories and foster relationships—are "priceless." But subliminally the message is also clear: you need to whip out that credit card to buy the things or the trappings or the fun times to gain those priceless intangibles.
And yet all this is taking a toll. We find ourselves—despite all our efforts and our best intentions to show our love through this hectic activity—grumpy or touchy. It's no surprise really. Our clothes are getting tight (which is depressing); we're stressed and low on sleep; we're worried about fitting it all in or forgetting something; and the anxiety about paying for all this is gathering like a gloom in the back of our minds.
It is annual struggle for anyone living in society such as ours to keep the focus on Christ.
On a practical level, it helps to remember that the Christmas season doesn't end on December 25, but begins on Christmas Day. The Incarnation is too great an event to celebrate for only a day. Hence we have Advent, not for pre-Christmas parties, but to prepare our souls for the coming of Christ. And hence
we have the weeks following Christmas to celebrate this incredible
feast. And since Christmas is a Season, not just a day, we can spread
out the parties and the cards and the giving, so we're not so frazzled.
On a spiritual level, any year, every year, we need to stop and spend time with Him, or we will get sucked up into the spending-splurging-scurrying whirlwind. Any year, every year, we need to step back to make sure we're not crowding Christ out and seek ways to simplify, see what we can do without, to make room for Him in our celebration. Even this year, with Christmas only two days away, it's not too late to recalibrate, to get things back in balance.
Any year, every year, if not this year, then next year, we can approach it this way.
But this year, we have two additional things to contemplate.
A few days ago, there was a lot of joking about the predicted end of the world. Unlike most people I imagine, my husband and I thought, however, how wonderful it would be if the world really were to end. We're eager to go home to the Lord, but not to leave in grief each other or our children who still need us. But for us all to go together? Sounds great! Or it did, until we remembered those loved ones who perhaps are not ready to meet Christ on Judgment Day.
Secondly, every year there are, sadly, people who must bear the heightening of grief that comes with celebrating Christmas without someone. That sorrow is more accessible to all of us this year, when we think of the many families suffering such a loss in Newtown, Conn. Such a tragedy! and for so many. No presents can make up for the presence missing this year.
Yet these things can help us remember the point of Advent, the point of Christmas. It's not about the presents, the decorations, the goodies. It is about showing love, and we can show love through those things, but not merely with things. There are other, better, deeper ways.
The point is to be thankful that He came once—glory, hallelujah! Let's celebrate!
And since He's coming again—though we know not when—the point is also to be ready, and help others to be ready, to meet Jesus, so we can celebrate His coming again, whenever it may happen.