Advent must have been something great back in the day. The sober, quiet calm before the storm of Christmas cheer. A time to hole up and gather energy for the Christmas feast.
It is not so anymore.
1. The music is disappointing.
Imagine if, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and all the days between, the grocery store and the drug store blared “Jesus Christ is risen today-ay — ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-alleluia!”
That’s what they do during Advent. “Glo-wo-wo-wo-wo-wo — wo-wo-wo-wo-wo — wo-wo-wo-wo-wo-ria, in exclesis Deus!” In a strange irony, the very time when the Church won’t sing the Gloria is the only time CVS will.
Being a Catholic in a grocery store in Advent is like being a Catholic at the company lunch … on a Friday at the Dave’s Famous Barbecue.
This problem is compounded by the fact that, while there is a lot of great Lenten music about the days leading up to Easter (“O Sacred Head Surrounded,” which is not by Paul Simon, for instance), there is precious little Advent music about the days leading up to Christmas (because the Sacred Head was surrounded by amniotic fluid just then).
My brother, a piano player, solves the problem by willingly playing secular Christmas music only throughout Advent. If it doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth, what’s the problem?
I like that solution, but my favorite secular Christmas song is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which is wildly inappropriate in Advent. Because Advent is the Most Disappointing Time of the Year.
2. The Jesse Tree is disappointing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Jesse Tree. We have done one most of the years we have had children. Which is 21 years. We have started out hanging the little fig leaf and telling the story of Genesis, we have gotten through the little Noah rainbow, even the little Moses burning bush. But we have never made it all the way through to the little fiery furnace and the little camel hair John-the-Baptist suit.
Our youngest child (number nine) is 1, so we easily have another decade and a half of Jesse Trees ahead of us. I would be willing to bet that we will continue to try, and fail because so many activities in the weeks before Christmas make it nearly impossible.
We have done a little better with the Holy Heroes video version, which is God’s gift to the modern large-Catholic-family-with-high-piety-expectations. But for us, the Jesse Tree remains very much like that thing-you-gave-up-for-Lent-that-you-never-quite-gave-up (which for me is always hyphens).
3. The penitence is disappointing.
Giving up stuff for Lent is one of the great underrated perks of being Catholic.
Our big secret: Mardi Gras isn’t really a thing with most of us. For most of us, we have been living it up in our small way throughout January and February, getting ready to give up the thing we plan to give up. We eat candy with abandon. We eat seconds without a thought. Then we get thirds. We drink with (moderate, not drunken) abandon.
But Advent penitence is weird. However much I have tried, “I gave that up for Advent” just doesn’t work on some deep psychological level for me. It also doesn’t work on a practical level, with office Christmas parties and secret Santa swaps and recitals with refreshments afterwards and the alarming ubiquity of frosted sugar cookies (if bloggers weren’t practically required to put numbers in titles these days, I would definitely title this post “The Alarming Ubiquity of Frosted Sugar Cookies”).
4. The almsgiving is disappointing.
Imagine you had nine children. Now imagine you have an unshakable desire to see their eyes dancing with pleasure at the great generosity of God and man on Christmas morning as they throw their little arms around you and shout, “Daddy, I am so happy … so very, very happy!”
Now imagine what your bank account would look like at that very moment.
Now imagine trying to give money to the poor.
This is, of course, the real problem of the interplay between consumerism and charity (which Rush is wrong about and the Pope is right about, by the way). But it is also the real problem of the interplay between big families and charity.
God in his kindness showed us one answer: Volunteering. It was a few years ago when Christmas was on a Sunday. We were helping out Benedictine College’s Hunger Coalition and delivering meals on Christmas Eve. There we were, a line of small, large and medium-sized Hoopeses, knocking on drab doors, holding crisp white sack lunches — when snowflakes started to flutter down all around, like they would if our life were a movie about volunteering on Christmas Eve.
The only problem: Now volunteering in Advent is disappointing if it doesn’t snow.
5. The Christmas decorations are disappointing.
I am far from a purest about Christmas-stuff-in Advent. But my wife is an Advent hardliner. Together we have compromised over the years and now do most of our decoration on Gaudete Sunday.
Christmas decorations in Advent don’t bother me … but it does require my brain to do constant course corrections. I have a go-to analogy: I remind myself that before a baby is born a mother gets a baby shower, and then convince myself that the decked-out CVS is the secular world’s baby shower for Jesus.
In my darker moments, though, I brood over the Jesus-averse “Holiday Greetings” and “Winter Sales” signs and mourn the loss of Christendom and its replacement with the insipid, soul-killing cult of the vicious god Mammon, in whose thrall I, too, labor. Which is disappointing.
But not everything in Advent is disappointing.
One thing that does not disappoint is the third thing we are called to do in Advent, in addition to almsgiving and sacrifice: prayer (join my daughter, if you want: She is rolling her eyes at Dad Getting Pious. Too bad. It’s true).
The Jesus-less crèche isn’t on this list. We turn into a visual rosary aid.
Daily Mass with John the Baptist readings isn’t on this list.
Confession isn’t on this list.
And I don’t care if I feel disappointed at Advent. As April and I say over at the National Catholic Register (in a Sunday Guide entry that harshes the holiday buzz): “It’s Advent. Don’t Trust Your Feelings.”
Anyway, Merry Advent! Meet me by the Jesse Tree.