November 2001

Christmas Time ©

As I reflected on the season of Advent the other day, I began to wonder if the reason the people of Bethlehem had turned their backs on Mary and Joseph was not so much because they lacked the space, but rather because they lacked the time.

Time. More precious than gold, frankincense or myrrh. Perhaps they lacked the time because they were too busy preparing for Christmas…at least that would have been my excuse.

It is a cruel irony to realize when our community celebrations have been drained of their life-giving meaning or indeed when our religious traditions block our view of the truths they were meant to convey.

Jesus was born in total simplicity more than two thousand years ago so that we might come to understand that simplicity is the salvific way. Jesus grew up never failing to express gratitude to his heavenly Father for the simple wonders of Creation. And Jesus died – stripped of everything – in the spirit of unconditional generosity, asking only one thing of us: To love God unreservedly and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Along the way, he never asked us to fuss on special occasions as his friend Martha had. By inference, we can conclude that he would really have preferred that we take the time to enjoy his presence, as her sister Mary did.

Transposing this to our day, we can readily imagine his inviting us to take the time to gaze lovingly upon Him and His presence in our neighbour, meaning not only those we know but also those we do not know.

If I am to be very honest with myself, I must confess that not only do I fail to give significant time to strangers, but alarmingly I have come to realize how little time I actually devote to those I do know and profess to love.

Yet time is an unadorned package that contains the only gift that is ours to give…ourselves. Everything else is a more or less adequate representation of ourselves and of the love we have for those we care about.

Advent is, above all, a time. It is a time of preparing for Christmas time. There are many ways of preparing, as Martha would readily attest. This year, I invite you to join me in preparing by taking stock of two things: our use of time and our capacity for simple contemplation.

What I suppose is this: that this will enable us to sharpen our tastebuds for the perfect gift of Christmas: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Very often, our busy lives seem to drive us to using our time in ways that are not of our own choosing. We intuitively feel that we are spending too much time on the wrong things. Yet whenever we resign ourselves to the fact that we are victims of time, someone inevitably comes along and says: “ If it’s important, you can make the time.”

For me, this seemingly facile admonition is far from reassuring; it normally has the contrary effect of increasing my level of stress. Yet, these words do contain precious truth.

Notwithstanding social and self-imposed pressure, how we use our time is largely our choice. And these choices have consequences. What we typically call demands are really social conventions that are, in the end, ours to reject, adopt or adapt. Our creative and deliberate use of these conventions and the time they consume may, in effect, spell the difference between going through life in auto-pilot mode and experiencing the fullness of life.

Our culture reveres what we have come to call freedom, which in many cases bears all of the characteristics of slavery. This brand of freedom compels us to reject the wisdom of the ages in favour of the illusion of living life to the fullest. What often passes as living life to the fullest extent possible is in reality a gobbling of vast quantities of undifferentiated foods, without the benefit of choice regarding nutrition or the delight of savouring the food by digesting it slowly, even passionately.

Ours is a fast food culture. Our entertainment as well as our dining habits reflect this reality. We have adopted a fast food mentality regarding life in general. Sadly our spirituality often bears its imprint.

What we have discounted, or perhaps never truly appreciated, is the value of a balanced outlook that regards true freedom as the ability to refuse that which is not wholesome and nourishing. What many have lost is the ability to say no to the lure of advertizing and other contrived realities.

You need only spend a few days in a monastery to see how life and indeed love can be lived another way. You need only observe how time can be deliberately carved to make room for all the elements that are vital to good living: work, rest and the contemplation of love, whether natural or supernatural.

Indeed, we have even lost the desire to experience the joy of simply gazing lovingly and unhurriedly at the beauty that surrounds us in creation or in people.

Yes, we have options. We need not follow mindlessly the dictates of commerce and convention. We have the capacity to appropriate that which is life-giving and to reject whatever is life-draining. No doubt, each choice comes with a price tag. Some choices require courage and must be implemented with grace and particular consideration for others. But ultimately, options are available to us.

There is perhaps no better time than the outset of Advent to make significant decisions in this regard. It is the beginning of a new liturgical year and, therefore, a good time to make resolutions, beginning with the use of Christmas time.

Why not make a resolution to take control of our use of time and to ensure that it is used in the service of what we care most about? Why not use this opportunity to contrast our previous experience of overwhelming activity and the stress that it generates with the peace of contemplation and the awesome splendour of gazing lovingly upon the beauty that surrounds us? Why not give ourselves the freedom to discover within the silent night the sacredness of uncluttered simplicity.

As we proceed on this Advent adventure, we will become conscious, perhaps for the first time, of sights, sounds and other sensations that escape us in the dizzying whirl of modern life. We will become reacquainted with inner longings for love that can only be satisfied through authentic relationships, stripped of all distracting artifices.

In the midst of this descent into our inner being, we will surely discover, as the shepherds had, the miracle of the Incarnation; that consciousness percolates from the Spirit-filled soul and seeps into our being from the vastness of the God-created universe; that new beginnings rise from the depths of the contemplative night.

Meanwhile, to those who recoil from authentic communion with creation, with family and with strangers, this may be just another Christmas. Just another Christmas spells laughter and good times for some; but for many it is a time of bitter disappointment. It is a brutal collision with media-created illusions of what Christmas ought to be; it is a painful reminder of loneliness.

The Word became flesh so that our hearts might be open to the Josephs and Marys that enter our lives serendipitously; to liberate us from fear, illusion and isolation, which have been the works of our self-absorbed egos since the time of man’s Original Sin. The Word of Wisdom came along to lead those who believe in the merits of simplicity, gratitude and generosity to the freedom, peace and joy of genuine communion – relationship that is sealed with a welcoming gaze.