My friends are complaining about this time of the year. Most of the complaining doesn't use the word "Advent", even from among the most religious people I know. It's about "The Holidays", which are a different set of things altogether.
The complaining is about the craziness of our behavior at this time. This year there seems to be a lot of discontent with the party scene. You, know - you are invited to a Holiday Party and so you have to have a Holiday Party to invite all of the people who invited you to their Holiday Party. All of this starts at the end of November and has to be done before the 24th of December. I have one friend who has been to 2 parties a night, 6 nights a week, for the last 3 weeks. He was also invited to parties on the 7th night of the week, but that is where he drew the line. He thinks it's crazy, but doesn't see any way of dealing with it.
And of course, there is the usual complaining about all the commercialism and the craziness of the shopping scene, but the last I heard, the amount of shopping was going up faster than any of the financial experts had expected - about twice as fast, according to one report. And when I did my own shopping last week, the stores were pretty packed - and this was on a Monday, so the complaining doesn't seemed to have changed that, either.
I do draw a line between Advent and The Holidays, and there have been times when I wrote passionately about the differences between them (see December postings for the past couple of years, if you're interested) but this year I'm musing on whether they might not be just two two different ways of responding to the same situation.
I wonder if Advent and The Holidays aren't two different ways of responding to chaos. Advent has all those apocalyptic themes - the end of the world, battles, wars, everything falling apart, and I wonder if this isn't at least partly a response of inner symbolism to the outer realities of December in the Northern Hemisphere. At this time of the year our whole world gets steadily darker, and colder and more difficult. On a semi-conscious level things are headed "down". There is a part of us, which goes back to the days of living in caves huddled around small fires, that has to be wondering whether we're going to survive this. We're feeling threatened and vulnerable and death lurks at the back of our minds. Many people respond with depression, and that's perfectly natural. I think there's also a variety of other responses.
Advent responds with archetypal symbols of chaos: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, plagues, dissolution of civilization. The Holidays respond with behavior that we hope will keep us from thinking about this stuff: we party so we won't have to confront our mortality, we shop so we'll feel provided for and won't have to think about our fragility. We do various things to shore up our feelings of security and let ourselves know that we will get through it.
And we do have our secular apocalypses, too - 2012, for instance. There are always apocalyptic movies around at this time of the year. These themes are always with us.
Looking at it this way makes several responses available to me:
1) I can investigate the various apocalyptic scenes that the liturgy provides me with and see what interior stuff is being evoked. It's not a bad thing to root around in my feelings about death, helplessness, vulnerability and such. This helps me realize what I'm responding to, and provides opportunity for enlarging my prayer. Yes, there's lots to pray about and meditate on in this stuff. Advent insists that it's better to have this stuff be conscious than to let it control us in other ways.
2) I can look at what I'm doing with my shopping and partying. You may think this amusing for a monk to be saying, but I have all those responses, even if my opportunity to act on them is more limited than those of most people. But I have old friends for whom I always buy small presents, and I am invited to various social occasions. And among all the wonderful reactions that God has provided us with, I have to assume that the ability not to think dark and dismal thoughts 24/7 has got to be one. We're created to face anything that comes along, and also to be able to have a respite when it all gets to be too much. How am I using these facilities? What do I need to face, and when do I need to give it a rest? How do I want to do my resting? Much to think about.... and to pray about.
3) Decisions. What do I want this time of the year to be for me? Like everyone else, I tend to get out of control in December. My calendar for this last week was a real nightmare. Why would any sensible person agree to everything I agreed to in the week following one of the biggest retreats of the year? Where was my time to do some recovery? How was I supposed to deal with the work that got set aside while the Advent Retreat was being planned, set up, conducted and taken down? I planned all of this past week in a state of unconsciousness. Do I want to do that again next year? Or even next week? What do I want to do to see that doesn't happen again? Much to think about, and to pray about.
I love Advent. I really love it. The Holidays aren't bad either. There is so much to be involved with. So many opportunities to deepen my humanity and my faith.