Black Friday is the name Americans have given the day after Thanksgiving, though the concept is catching on in Canada and Europe. It is called “black” because store-keepers know it as the time of year when sales move further into the black and farther into profit margins. Cyber Monday is a clever addition to the frenzied consumer holiday, luring black Friday shoppers and their less adventurous counterparts to continue their purchasing online. Evoking both buyer and seller competition, steep sales and loud advertisements make for frenzied scenes and the need for stamina. Those who watch as bystanders still sense the fervor that begins on Black Friday and continues in a hectic race until Christmas. When everyone around you seems to be running, standing still is easier said than done.
Each year the commencement of the Christmas shopping season overshadows the commencement of a far quieter season. The season of Advent signals the coming of Christmas for Christians, though not in the way that Black Friday signals the coming of the same. “Advent is about the spirituality of emptiness,” writes Joan Chittister, “of enough-ness, of stripped-down fullness of soul.” It is a far cry from the hustle of the holidays that is a race for storing things up. Speed-hoarding through the days of Christmas preparation, Christmas itself even becomes somewhat anticlimactic. “Long before December 25th everyone is worn out,” said C.S. Lewis more than 50 years ago, “—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making… They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.”(1) Quite the opposite, Advent is a season meant to slow us down, to open windows of awareness and health, to trigger consciousness. It is about finding the kind of quiet mystery and the sort of expectant emptiness that can offer a place for the fullness of God as an infant among us.
Of course, for even the quietest of hearts, this God who becomes human, the incarnate Christ, is still a mystery. But mystery, like beauty and truth, is well worth stillness, wonder, and contemplation. And this mystery—the gift of a God who steps into the world he created—is rich enough to make the most distracted souls bow. “Let anyone with ears listen!” said Jesus repeatedly throughout his life on earth. “But to what will I compare this generation?” he added. “It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:15-17). You and I can open our minds to hear the great and unsearchable things we do not know, things like the Incarnation that we may never fully understand but are always invited to know further. Or we can simply look and act for all of Christmas to correspond with societal whims and unconscious distractions—fighting to be heard in the cultural debates about what we call or don’t call the season, arguing about public billboards and private mangers.
Christ will come regardless. The hope of Advent is that it is always possible to make room for him. I’m reminded of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who composed a remarkable series of journals in the darkest years of Nazi occupation before being sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1943. In one of her entries, Etty wrote, “[S]ometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.”(2) Advent can be this simple; the invitation of Christ is this simple. Let anyone with ears open them. Contemplating Christmas need not mean defensive words, Christmas wars, lists and budgets, endless labor, and fretful commotion.
Advent, after all, is about the riches of being empty-handed and that is an abruptly countercultural posture; empty-handed, so that we can fully hold the mystery before us and nothing less; empty-handed, like the God who came down from heaven without riches or power, but meek and small—full, expectant, and enough.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries 1941-1943 (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1983), 93.
(2) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 305.