In the Gospel, Jesus mentions that we can tell when summer is coming by the budding of the fig tree. He recognizes that we’re pretty good at figuring out what’s ahead. Arthritic knees feel the storm before it strikes. “We’ve got to talk” means Friday’s dinner date is off. Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning. If we humans are paying attention (even just a little bit), not much can slip by us.
And so, I pay attention to the signs: every retail store is trying to sell you a Garmin GPS system, pop singers are taking it in turns to butcher “O Holy Night” on the radio, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station can see your neighbor’s decorations. So this is Christmas, I echo John Lennon’s hopeful lament.
Now, I promise this article isn’t going to degenerate into the generic, tired outrage about consumerism during the holiday season, so stick with me for a few minutes. I’m paying attention to the signs, and all I see are discounted LCD flat screens and all I hear is another cover of “Frosty the Snowman.” Ever since the commercial sector replaced black and orange with red and green, we have been living in a winter wonderland of perpetual Christmas Eve. And I’m telling you, I could have weight-trained with the circular-laden Thanksgiving edition of the newspaper.
I’m paying attention, but the luster and volume of perpetual Christmas Eve flash brighter and shout louder than the subtle, increasingly subversive current that charges this holiday with meaning. This subtle event is, of course, the birth of an infant. Not so newsworthy, right? Indeed, the Bethlehem Gazette would have only covered the event because of the odd behavior of a bunch of shepherds.
You see, the people of Israel weren’t looking for an infant born out in the barn. They were looking for a triumphant, well-muscled, military superhero to be their messiah, to be their exterminator of all things Roman. And so they missed the signs because they were paying attention to the wrong thing. They were so busy yearning for pomp and swagger that they missed love and humility. While we don’t have to worry about the Roman Empire, we often fall in the same trap of misplaced attention. By observing some mutated version of Christmas for weeks ahead of time we fail to recognize a truly wonderful season of preparation for Christmas, which the Church has been celebrating for centuries.
Today marks the sixth day* of that season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to the celebration of the birth (or Incarnation, if you want to be technical) of Jesus Christ. During the season of Advent, we pause, we notice our ragged breath, and we take time to catch it. We prepare a place in our hearts to receive once again the love of God in the presence of Jesus Christ and wonder how we let that place get so cluttered since last year. And as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, we realize just how badly our society has missed the point.
This Advent, drag your eyes and ears away from all that clamors for your notice, all that sound and fury. Pay attention to the true signs of the subtle, subversive event of the presence of Christ in our midst. Your neighbor’s decorations may sparkle and glitter, but they do not shine like the light of the world. That pop singer’s quivering ornamentations might adorn “O Holy Night,” but they do nothing for a world that still lays long in sin and error pining. And that GPS system you bought on Black Friday for $89.95 might give good directions, but it won’t show you the way.
The way, the truth, the life comes. Pay attention and see the signs of Christ’s presence in our midst. And don’t just notice those signs. Be one.
* This post began its life as an article in my local newspaper. Today is actually the ninth day of Advent, and the article actually appeared on the seventh day — so I’m wrong across the board.