H.L. Mencken famously quipped that “Puritanism [is the] haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” A similar attitude is applied to the Catholic Church. There is a horrible assumption in the world – and sometimes within the Church as well – that the world is about having fun and doing whatever you desire while the Church is all about self-denial. The lie of this attitude is revealed by the Advent and Christmas seasons. The world offers more than 40 days of absolute torture called the “Christmas shopping season.” This season is filled with stress, guilt and debt. All of this builds up to a single day of fun. In contrast, the Catholic Church offers 40 days of hope, peace, joy and love, followed by an 8-day feast, followed by nine more days of the Christmas season.
The Role of Self-Denial
Sure, Advent does call us to a certain amount of self-denial. But that self-denial has a purpose. First, it quiets our physical desires so we can focus on higher goods. We can’t focus on hope for salvation when we’re stuffing our face with Christmas cookies. Secondly, self-denial helps us to focus on others. We aren’t called to self-denial for the sake of self-torture. We’re called to stop being so selfish and to think of others. Self-denial is paired with acts of mercy.
Celebrating the Advent Way
My daughter hates waiting. Christmas eve drives her nuts. She can’t stand to see the wrapped presents under the tree and not know what’s in them. She hasn’t yet learned the secret to celebrating the Advent way. Advent is all about joyful anticipation. It’s the delicious experience of considering all of the good things God has done for us already, and looking forward to the good things He has in store for us. We reflect on salvation history, on Jesus’ first coming, and also on Heaven and on Jesus’ final coming. These reflections give us such great reasons to celebrate!
So we don’t just observe Advent. We celebrate it. But our celebration is the celebration of Christmas Eve – relishing the anticipation while acknowledging the love that makes it possible. The Advent Wreath, the Jesse Tree, preparing the Nativity Scene, and slowly preparing our homes for Christmas are all concrete ways we celebrate this joyful anticipation.
Waiting for the Full Celebration
When we allow Christmas celebrations to encroach on our Advent celebration, we’re in danger of losing both. Following our Christmas Eve analogy, we tear the corners off all the presents and ruin the surprise. We destroy both the anticipation and the surprise. In real terms, we fall into the trap of seeing Christmas like the world does – 40 days of self-centered torture ending in a single day of over-indulgence.
But if we embrace the fullness of Advent and of Christmas, we can celebrate like the world never could.