Note: Rev. Keller is followed in the audio by Frank Casper.
Any other year I can remember, this Sunday after Thanksgiving, after what has come to be called Black Friday, I would have delivered, in some form and at some length, a scold about how much we collectively have come to miss the point of Christmas.
Not as someone who was raised Christian, because I was not — I was raised a Jewish Humanist Unitarian — or because I subsequently converted to any Christian orthodoxy, which I haven’t. Because, out of that Unitarian childhood, out of my exposure to the wonder stories of so many religions and cultures, out of my adult sense that our evolving intra-religious faith asks us to not just seek and see the universal in human experiences, but the differences in our understandings, I wish to honor the enduring meanings behind and the purposes of religious rituals and traditions.
Nonetheless, this year I feel compelled to bracket this annual tendency of mine — and many — to raise my eyebrows and cluck my tongue at the “blatant” commercialism that began even earlier this year. The Christmas that sells things.
In this year when unemployment still hovers (officially) at around 10 percent, 15 million American workers, the longest such economic downturn since the Depression of the l930s, the lyrics by Jerry Herman of “We Need a Little Christmas” from the musical Mame have popped into my head. The scene in which this popular tune is sung comes after the eccentric and previously well-off Auntie Mame has lost her job at Macy’s, fired for never having gotten the hang of making sales that were not C.O.D. For the first time in her life, following the stock market crash, along with legions of others, she is flat broke.
Hopelessly mired in debt and butcher bills, with no prospects for future solvency, she turns to the comfort, however commercial, of the Christmas celebration:
Haul out the Holly,
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I might be rushing things but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
Candles in the window
Carols at the spinet.
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry
So climb down the chimney
Turn on the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen.
For I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older.
We need a little snappy happy ever after
We need a little Christmas now.
In 2010, the need for a little Christmas now started before Halloween in some retail outlets, with advertisements of bright lights and big savings, playing convincingly on the theme of light amidst darkness, cynical as it may have been.
While not so long ago, just a year or so back, only a few grocers and a handful of discount stores remained open on Thanksgiving, this year, as one newspaper article noted, not all Americans “tucked into turkey with their families,” at least not for the full day. Some were out shopping, it was reported, hitting sales ahead of the crowds expected Friday.
After a year, actually several years now, of cautious spending and worry over an uncertain economy and intractable joblessness, despite what has also been named as ever more relentless commercialization of the holiday, millions took the bait.
They couldn’t wait, as this season’s ubiquitous Target ad modeled, with an uber-excited female shopper covered with varying alarm clocks, sleepless, ready to be the first in line for a 4 a.m. opening. Or splayed comatose, her nose pressed against the store door.
Many, like my own daughter, put the turkey remains in the refrigerator and the dinner dishes in a soapy pan, taking off for outlet malls that stayed open until midnight Thursday and re-opened at dawn. There it was, the Facebook posting, in the middle of the night. She had scored a few gifts for office mates, a blanket, a travel mug, and a bargain priced steam cleaner for their wood floors.
On Black Friday — the first day merchants might hope to turn a profit — in many shopping centers, parking spots were at a premium and shopping carts even more scarce.
As one headline declared, in its own theme of light — the economic forecast has brightened just a bit. With more retail sales meaning more employed people, with shopping as some sort of salvation unless or until we ever find a way to build an economy (and the jobs that go with it) based on more than financial speculation — and purchasing things.
In my own town, there is a promotion going on for every resident to try to spend $50 in three of our local independent businesses with the memory of not-so-distant Christmases past being of darkened storefronts, covered windows, and for-rent signs, and the only thriving commerce being pager stores and lottery outlets.
AJC columnist Jay Bookman vowed to stay home this holiday weekend in peace and quiet, with football games as his company, while saluting, as he wrote “those hardy souls who do make the sacrifice on behalf of the rest of us. Somebody,” he believes, “has to get this economy moving again…while the rest of us sit back in awe, gratitude, and relief.”
So a kind of fiscal redemptive light there may be in this season of cautiously renewed shopping, but, as my colleague the Rev. Judith Campbell preached almost a decade ago, we need not forget the spiritual theme of light against darkness. Mystic theologian Matthew Fox, who looks for the commonalities among religious traditions, has written that to talk about Creation is to talk about light illuminating all being.
Anticipation, waiting, preparation, hope for redeeming light are common, from the pre-Christian Celtic societies who made circles of evergreens and lit fires in promise of the return of light to the world, to the menorah candles of Chanukah that brought light and promise of a Messianic rescue to a dark period of Jewish history.
In Christian tradition, candles, lamps, light, and flames represent the manifest presence of God in the world. From the Psalms: The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, God’s Word is a lamp to the feet and a light to our path. And from the Gospel of John: God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.
This morning and the next three Sunday mornings we will be lighting the candles of Advent, which shares the glory, the holiness of Light with so many other religious rituals, and yet has its own meaning and purpose within Christianity, one of the sources of our own living tradition.
Lauren F. Winner, a professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School, admits she is a church nerd who loves Advent. She loves the mornings in this time of year when people turn up at her congregation and bend, as she describes, over long tables stacked with Styrofoam rounds and make Advent wreaths to take home. She writes how she loves singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel in her community, adding another verse each week as they wind their way toward Christmas. How this holy time invites people to wait. Just to wait.
Bemoaning, as she describes it, how hard it is to wait, especially because we Americans aren’t very good at it, whether waiting in line or saving up for the toys we want, child or adult.
But still we do wait, she observes. We wait and wait and wait — for our prayers to be answered, for a cure for a loved one’s cancer, for heartbreak to heal, for peace and justice in this country.
Most of the year, Winner tells us, while we wait, we also work for the Kingdom of God. During Advent, we are paradoxically asked to stop the working, to remember how sacred a calling is the waiting itself.
Waiting for the coming of the light.
Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel, shall come within as light to dwell.