This weekend marks the Third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday. While Advent no longer has the penitential feel it once did, this weekend is a break from the sense of expectation and an invitation to rejoice in God’s presence amongst us.
The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord is still two weeks away, and already many people are fatigued by Christmas in the marketplace. Some department stores have had their Christmas sections open since August, and one can only but spare a thought for staff who’ve been hearing about Rudoph’s red nose for months now.
Retail experts tell us that shops make more in the busy Christmas period that they do in the rest of the year. This is not to be scoffed at. Many jobs in the service sector that are full-time could well be part-time or merely seasonal were it not for the splurge in spending at Christmas.
Nor should people of Faith blithely fall back on finger-wagging about Christmas becoming too commercial. While there is excess – and the Church is right to call attention to this particularly when some people have so little – there is also a rightful place for feasting and present-giving.
The Incarnation – God becoming man – teaches us many things: and one of them is that there is something fundamentally good about matter. And so, exchanging gifts and extending kindnesses is of the essence of our Christian Faith.
But, of course, it’s not all there is. And this is what is forgotten in the commercial celebration of Christmas where ostentatiousness rather than humility become the yardstick by which we measure gifts.
Christmas stripped of meaning is a dreary run on a treadmill. Jesus becomes a bystander in his own birth, and God’s salvific entry into time and history a quaint story from long ago.
As the late Fr Michael Paul Gallagher once put it: God is missing but not missed. It is becoming harder and harder to find a place for talk of God in contemporary culture – and even the cultural references are changing at a rapid pace.
People of Faith have to work hard to keep traditions and religious references part of everyday life”
Philosopher Charles Taylor traces the shift as one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.
The removal of religious and traditional cultural references in the public sphere is part of this shift. Like when the saints names were removed from hospital wards in Wexford or when some public institutions decided to ban the Christmas crib for fear of offending secular-minded people.
Sometimes, it is as crass as rebranding rather than a dispensing with tradition per se. Take Dublin’s Grafton Street, for example. For as long as anyone can remember, pedestrians on the street were greeted at this time of year with an illuminated sign which read ‘Nollaig Shona Duit’. That has now been replaced by the drab ‘Welcome to Grafton Quarter’ leaving people in no doubt that what is going on has nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with filthy lucre.
People of Faith have to work hard to keep traditions and religious references part of everyday life. Some will say phrases like ‘God Bless’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ are just trite platitudes. But, they are much more than this – they are gentle reminders of God’s presence and action in our world, even in the Grafton Quarter.