materialism

Occupy Advent 2012 (Let's ask Siri)

The first question was simple: "Siri, when is Christmas?" After the two-tone "BEED-EEP" chime, the voice of the Apple iPhone responded: "Christmas is on Tuesday, December 25, 2012. I hope I have the day off."

Then matters got complicated: "When is Advent?"

Siri searched her memory and said: "I didn't find any events about 'Ed Fant.' "

Trying again: "When is the Advent season?"

Siri cheerfully responded: "I am not aware of any events about 'advent season.' "

After several more "BEED-EEP" chimes the Apple cloud ultimately drew a blank when asked, "When does the Christmas season end?" Alas, Siri didn't understand the term "Christmas season."

That's understandable, since it's clear that millions of Americans are either confused about these questions or they disagree with answers rooted in centuries of Christian life, noted Jimmy Akin, senior apologist at Catholic Answers (Catholic.com).

The problem isn't just that the secular marketplace celebrates a different season -- "The Holidays" -- which runs from the shopping day previously known as Thanksgiving through Dec. 25th, which precedes several days in which gifts are returned, leftovers consumed, trees discarded and decorations jammed into garages.

The problem, said Akin, is that many Christian institutions have surrendered and no longer observe the four quiet weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming") and then the 12-day Christmas season, which begins with the Dec. 25 feast and continues through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Advent and Christmas seasons have for centuries been celebrated in many different Christian traditions.

"There is just so much noise out there in the culture this time of year, so many signals clashing with the church's traditions," said Akin. "The key to all this is that our culture treats Christmas Day as the climax of a giant holiday season, not as the day that -- after the preparations of Advent -- kicks off the 12 days of Christmas."

The bottom line: Most Americans, believers and nonbelievers alike, "frontload" Christmas celebrations into the weeks before Christmas, trample Advent and then ignore the traditional season of Christmas. The question for church leaders is how to serve as winsome advocates for Christian traditions without adopting an "Advent Grinch" attitude -- the term used at the Occupy Advent website -- that turns off people seeking alternatives to the modern Christmas crush.

Some church leaders are convinced that it's time to throw in the towel, noted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in an online commentary about what he called "The Annual Advent Argument."

A traditionalist, he said, may proclaim, "Yeah, remember 50 years ago when we were kids? The tree would not go up until Christmas Eve; carols would never be heard till real close to Christmas; there were some added days of fast and abstinence during Advent; even Christmas Eve was a day of penance! Wasn't that better? We so looked forward to Christmas because we waited!"

Then somebody else will respond, "But there's nothing we can do about it! Society begins the Christmas season on Thanksgiving, and ends it on December 25. ... The Church is out of it and will just have to change."

Meanwhile, Catholic instructions for bishops continue to urge clergy -- on the crucial issue of decorations in Advent -- to proceed "in a moderate manner, as is consonant with the character of the season, without anticipating the full joy of Christmas." The same general rule applies to Christmas music.

"The question everyone asks," noted Akin, "is, 'Why don't we do Christmas songs in church during Advent?' The answer is pretty simple: 'Because it isn't Christmas yet.' ... And it's one thing to put up a tree, but it's something else to completely decorate it weeks before Christmas. It's one thing to put up your Christmas creche. It's something else to go ahead and put the baby Jesus in the manger."

The goal is for churches to take symbolic actions that help people reclaim the full Christmas season. The most important move most churches could make, he said, would be to put their Christmas parties, festivals, caroling events and other celebrations during the traditional 12 days of Christmas.

"It would be pretty radical to pull some of those frontloaded celebrations out of Advent and back into the Christmas season itself. If we did that it might get some people's attention," said Akin. "The point we need to make is this: Christmas belongs in Christmas."

Warnings to believers in a consumer culture

Since the goal was to explore the cultural ties that bind, Father John Kavanaugh asked the young Catholics in a St. Louis classroom a basic civics question: How many national and world leaders could they name? The Jesuit didn’t allow the seventh graders to include celebrities and entertainers, which meant that actor Tom Cruise didn’t make the list. In the end, they ended up with 12 names.

"You started off with the pope and the president, of course. Then things got harder after that," said the St. Louis University philosophy professor, describing this scene during a 1990 Denver lecture that I covered for The Rocky Mountain News.

The questions got easier, for youngsters baptized in untold hours of commercials on cable television. When asked to name brands of beer, the list on the chalkboard topped 40. How about designer jeans? The seventh graders came up with more than 50 different brands. They were experts when it came to the shopping-mall facts of life.

The Regis University crowd laughed, but it was nervous laughter, as the author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance" walked them through a slideshow demonstrating the power of advertising in shaping the minds of materialistic modern Americans.

Yes, it was funny when the priest offered Freudian interpretations of popular cigarette ads. But no one wanted to laugh at the images demonstrating how professionals were using bleak, depressing, yet erotic images of children in advertising aimed at adults.

Is this, the philosopher asked, what our culture's powers that be think real life is all about? If that is the case, he said, "then let's be freaks. Let's be tourists. ... We must remember this is not our home."

Kavanaugh died on Nov. 5 at age 71, after a career in service and scholarship that took him from St. Louis to India and then back home again. His perspectives on suffering and poverty were shaped by his early work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and then with the Jean Vanier communities for those with disabilities in Bangalore.

In addition to his work as a professor and spiritual director for seminarians, Kavanaugh was known for his columns in America magazine, film criticism in The St. Louis Review and numerous books. "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" was reissued twice in new editions, to keep its cultural criticism up to date.

Kavanaugh pleaded guilty to tilting at his share of conservative windmills, but anyone who was paying close attention knew that he was trying to prod the consciences of Catholics on the left as well as the right.

The priest raised eyebrows with a 2002 column entitled "Goodbye, Democrats" in which he argued that America's political culture had collapsed to the point that it would be wise for believers to cut their partisan political ties by registering as independent voters. He stressed that he thought Catholics in the Republican Party needed to bail out, as well.

Writing to his fellow progressives, Kavanaugh proclaimed: "One thing the Democrats really stand for, however, is abortion -- abortion on demand, abortion without restraint, abortion paid for by all of us, abortion for the poor of the earth. I am not a one-issue voter, but they have become a one-issue party. … If traditional Democrats who are disillusioned with the selling out of the working poor and the unborn simply became registered Independent voters, would not more attention be paid?"

The problem, of course, is that it’s sinfully easy for ministers -- once again, on the left or the right -- to keep preaching easy sermons that they know their flocks want to hear, said Kavanaugh, when I interviewed him once again in 2008. It's easy to keep lashing away at the same familiar straw men, while avoiding topics that could offend the faithful in the home pews.

The Jesuit summed up his message with a quote that rings as true today as it did the final time that I talked with him.

"Whether you are preaching to liberals or conservatives, it's hard to tell people truths that they don't want to hear," he said, in that telephone interview. "It's hard to tell people to love their enemies. It's hard to tell people to repent of their sins and to forgive others. ... It's hard, but this is what good preachers have to do."

Santa Claus vs. St. Nicholas?

We see the headlines every two or three years during the holidays.

A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes.

This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus.

The church hierarchy sprang into action.

"There's a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand," Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.

Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child's question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa.

As a public service to cautious clergy, it might help to review the few options available to those considering discussing the spiritual and commercial versions of Christmas with children. Santa is hard to avoid.

Nevertheless, remaining silent is the first option. Many clergy and parents do not choose silence because it affirms the schizophrenic, secular-sacred Christmas split.

The second option is to nix Santa, right up front. Beliefnet.com columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green has offered blunt reasons for why Christian parents should -- gently -- reject the Santa Claus scenario.

"First, it's a big fat lie," she said. "What kind of an example are you setting here? How stupid are your kids going to feel when they realize they fell for this? What else of what you taught them are they going to doubt?"

Wait, she's just getting started: "The Santa myth teaches kids ingratitude. ... They learn that goodies magically appear and don't cost anybody anything. Their role in life is just to open packages and enjoy. It also teaches greed. We may say piously that we want our children to develop just and generous virtues, but filling them with images of a toy-wielding potentate with a lifetime pass on eToys will knock all that flatter than Kansas."

There is a third option for tradition-loving clergy and parents and, truth be told, I have never read a headline about a pastor being nailed for using it.

Call it the St. Nicholas option. It is especially easy for believers in Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican churches that emphasize the lives of the saints. The goal is to teach children about the 4th century bishop known as St. Nicholas of Myra, while noting that elements of his story later helped inspire the secular story of Santa Claus.

According to church tradition, he was born into wealth and gave his inheritance to the poor. The most famous story about the bishop is captured in the Charity of St. Nicholas icon. It shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from ruin by dropping gold coins through a window.

These gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry. The rest, as they say, is history.

The feast of St. Nicholas falls on Dec. 6 and, in parts of the world, remains a day for gift giving and alms for the poor. It is also a good time to discuss the pre-Christmas season of Advent or, in Eastern tradition, Nativity Lent.

The message to children is simple. Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. But he is not what Christmas is all about.

Playing the St. Nicholas card is the best option, but it is not without its risks, said Father Nicholas Bargoot, an Eastern Orthodox priest here in South Florida.

"With all the commercialism that surrounds us, we still have to be careful when we make that link that we do not to tarnish the reality of St. Nicholas and who he is," he said. "It is still easy for young children to be confused. I mean, what is St. Nicholas doing at the mall?"