When the modern custom of Black Friday—big retail sales on the day after Thanksgiving-- began several years ago, I thought it was kind of funny. Sure there were stabbings, shootings, and tramplings then just as there are today; but in the main Black Friday just seemed to be about people behaving badly to get a deal on stuff they didn’t really need anyway. But as the practice grew, the day itself morphed into an observance less funny than sad. As shoppers were interviewed, it turned out that many of them braved the dark and the cold on Black Friday morning so they could buy presents and necessities they couldn’t otherwise afford. And once they got inside, of course, the loss-leader items were quickly snatched up, so most shoppers ended up having stood in line for hours for the privilege of paying premium prices anyway.
This year, though, Black Friday has changed yet again, turning now potentially more pernicious. Because the door busters began on Thanksgiving Day itself this year, Black Friday has now finally succeed in overtaking the only holiday left that seemed exempt from retail hysteria. As far as commercialization goes, I gave up on Christmas long ago, but I still enjoyed the fantasy that we had one holiday that was about family and community and not about commodification. But now that I know I can spend my Thanksgiving day over at Target or Best Buy, I won’t have to worry about making small talk over the stuffing. I can spend the whole day first buying a flat screen TV and then watching football, free of any human interaction at all.
Such was the grumpy state of my post-Thanksgiving meditations until I had the unexpectedly happy experience of reading the news about Pope Francis’ first proclamation, an “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel”. It’s hard to stay grumpy when the pope warns that we’re in danger of becoming “querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’”. (His word, not mine.) Amid all the accounts of Black Friday excesses, amid the stuff that passed for religious news last week—a Wisconsin court’s overturning the clergy housing tax exemption, this cathedral’s announcement of a fixed price entry fee for tourists—there was a story that was actually worth following: Pope Francis recalled us to the basics of what Christianity is all about.
In today’s readings we are told, rather briskly, to wake up! “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” says Paul. [Romans 13:11] And even Jesus gets into the act: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [Matthew 24:42] Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the day that begins our four-week watch until Christmas, and the focus today is on waking up. Our collect today asks that we be given “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light”. We get ready for Christmas first by shaking ourselves awake.
As we reflect on all the silliness, sadness, sorrow, pain, and enmity in the world around us, Pope Francis gives us a wakeup moment. Most of the time most of us walk through life as if we were half asleep. Francis doesn’t just admonish us about being sourpusses. He recalls us to why we’re Christians in the first place. “Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus,” he says. “Let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!”
The startling thing about the pope’s document is how it reminds us that following Jesus is a joy. The press accounts of Evangelii Gaudium have understandably focused on his critiques of the internal squabblings of the church and of the excesses of market capitalism. As Francis has widely been quoted as saying, the church itself has lost its way: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” And so has our economic system lost not only its way but its values: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Those are important issues, of course, and not just for Roman Catholics. All churches, not the least our own, have been obsessed these past decades with their own internal workings and disagreements. And no one can watch the news of escalating national and global income inequality and see anything but disaster coming toward us as its result. But the central question, of course, is “Why do we care about such things?” And the answer is that we care about them not primarily because we’re angry or depressed. To be a Christian is not to be a vengeful sourpuss. We care about them because of the promise on offer to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be an ambassador of Jesus’s joy.
The real wakeup story of Evangelii Gaudium is the way it calls us both forward and back to what Christianity is all about. “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” says Francis. “Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” Those are the pope’s words, and I believe he speaks for all of us who seek to follow Jesus, at least for that part of us that is truly awake and alive.
Advent—the four weeks before Christmas—is an interesting season, and it works in a totally counterintuitive way. On this First Sunday we look not back but forward, to “the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead”. Jesus comes among us yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We must wake up and be ready to meet him.
What does it mean to be awake and ready to meet Jesus? In the history of Christian liturgy, the First Sunday of Advent has had every possible liturgical color. We here at the cathedral use blue because that’s the English Sarum color from Salisbury cathedral, a color traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary. In many churches they use purple as a penitential color, turning Advent into a mini version of Lent. In the middle ages, though, the color for today was black, because even at its height the imperial church had enough self-understanding to know that the second coming of Jesus would be bad news for the powerful. And in oppressed communities, in times and places where being a Christian has been dangerous, the Advent color is often white because those up against it know they will readily greet Jesus with joy.
What color does this Advent Sunday hold for you? The great Swedish bishop and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl was once asked about the difference between judgment and mercy. He thought for a minute and replied, “There is no difference. God acts, and we experience that action as either judgment or mercy depending on where we stand in relation to it.” Do you need to clean up your act? Or do you need to pray for liberation? Whether you experience God’s love as judgment or mercy, this Advent Sunday asks that you wake up and get yourself ready to meet it.
Advent and Christmas present an invitation to encounter Jesus. As Pope Francis says, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.” This is the season to remember why we follow Jesus in the first place. Some follow Jesus because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. Others follow Jesus because they see him as the champion of their causes. Francis calls us both back and forward to the realization that we follow Jesus because the life he offers is itself a joy. The Gospel is good news: the God who made the world made you, and that one loves the world and you in an infinitely deep variety of ways.
So wake up! In Francis’ words, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.” It won’t be Black Friday forever. Even the holiday season will pass. The joy of the Gospel will remain. Jesus is always coming toward us, ready to meet us as prophet, as teacher, as infant in the manger, as judge. In that meeting you will know love and justice and hope and peace, forgiveness and blessing, and above all joy. And that will be an encounter worth staying awake for. Amen.