Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bringing Advent Light to Black Friday

Have you noticed that every year, the retail stores open earlier and earlier for their so-called "Black Friday" sales? This year, some stores even opened late Thursday evening! And that says nothing of the many restaurants and bars that opened Thanksgiving afternoon to cash in on the football games going on.

There was a time not that long ago that you would be hard-pressed to find any businesses open on Thanksgiving—and certainly not on Christmas. These were days that somehow seemed “sacred” and "set apart."  Commerce and consumerism took a break so employees and patrons could be at home with their family—and somehow we all survived.

That's not the way it is anymore, though. Places like Food Lion, Starbucks, Buffalo Wild Wings, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart do brisk business on Holidays. They assume: If they open we will come and, like moths attracted to the eternal flame of consumerism, when they open we do come

The result is that the "sacredness" of these Holidays erodes a little more each year until eventually they start to seem just like any other day on the calendar.

As a follower of Christ, I for one am a little troubled by this trend. Seeing "Black Friday" spread into Thanksgiving Day seemed particularly bothersome to me—as if some kind of “sacred” boundary was violated—and I don't think I'm alone. I've seen some "backlash" on Facebook with people "boycotting" businesses that seem to be in too much of a hurry to jump into the rampant consumerism surrounding Christmas. It was refreshing to know that Nordstrom didn't decorate their stores until November 23—i.e., specifically stating that they are taking time to celebrate Thanksgiving before jumping into Christmas. However, what they are doing stands out precisely because most establishments have been playing Christmas music, stringing lights, and selling Holiday merchandise since Halloween—if not before.

If you are like me, you may feel a sense of despair as “Black Friday” spreads its insidious tendrils into Thanksgiving—a day set aside to focus on gratitude and thanks. Cultural darkness creeps a little further each year, and it seems that there’s not a thing any of us can do to stop it.

How should followers of Christ respond to this disturbing trend? Should we just accept it as “normal” and let ourselves be swept along by the tidal wave of consumerism and self-fulfillment that has come to be synonymous with the Season?

I think perhaps the season of Advent on our liturgical calendar offers us an answer. This is a season when we remember other times in history when God's people faced fading light and fading hope that things could be different, times when it surely seemed that “the way things were” was the way they would always be.

The Scriptures we read during Advent remind us that into those dark moments came the comforting light of God’s Presence. We frequently recall the Prophet Isaiah's hope-filled words, spoken ~700 years before Christ, to a people who, in the face of exile, despaired that light would ever shine again. Don't give up, says Isaiah; in time, a new king will be born who will reverse the current trend toward darkness.  (See Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

With the benefit of hindsight, Christians also read those words of Isaiah as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus—the Messiah, the liberating king. John's Gospel, written a few decades after Jesus lived, adds that Jesus was the "light of the world," whose light shone so brightly that no human darkness could ever overcome it.  (See John 1:4-5; 8:12; 9:5.)

This kind of light is the only light that has sufficient "illumination" to reverse creeping cultural darkness, in whatever form it takes in a particular time or place.  In Isaiah’s day, the darkness came from a looming external threat to Israel of an imminent foreign invasion; in Jesus’ time, the darkness was imposed upon the Jewish people by the Roman Empire; in our age, it is the insidious spread of consumerism embodied in practices such as “Black Friday.”

Advent anticipates and the arrival of the “true light” of Jesus on Christmas that has power to expose the insanity of what we have come to consider “normal” and illuminate an alternative way that we can follow out of the darkness.

But chances are, if we continue to passively accept things the way they are, and make no real changes to how we live, things will keep tending toward darkness and chaos.  Eventually, “Black Friday” will take over the whole week!

Advent wreath with four candles lit...
Notice how the "first candle" is almost gone by week four.
It has given its all to light up the darkness!
No, in order for things to be different, you and I, whom Jesus called, "the light of the world"Matthew 5:14-16—will have to consciously choose to shine. We can't simply keep following the “path of least resistance” and expect anything to change.  Insanity is defined as doing the same thing and expecting different results.  

Perhaps you and I are a bit like the candles on an Advent Wreath?  We have to allow ourselves to be lit and then shine for all the world to see—giving all that we are to the cause of bearing Christ’s light to the world.

If that’s true, then I believe our biggest challenge—and not just for Advent—is for it not to be benign business as usual in terms of our Christian practice. Part of the reason the cultural darkness of “Black Friday” continues to spread so rapidly is that we who claim to follow Christ have not really decided to stand against it—in fact, often we walk lockstep with it!  We may attend worship services, light candles during Advent, and sing Christmas carols, but it doesn’t seem to impact the way we live our daily lives.  Too often, when it comes right down to it, we’re virtually indistinguishable from our “non-Christian” neighbors when it comes to consumerism.  I for one would have to admit that I can easily get caught up in the “rat-race” of the season just like everyone else.

If followers of Christ are to truly be “light of the world,” we will have to be more intentional about claiming our unique identity in the world—while respecting other points of view—and standing against those practices that are opposed to the Message of Jesus. We cannot continue to shudder our light for fear of what others will think.  Jesus calls us to be a people who stand out from the world around us.  If we do our job right, we will not just blend in; our “light” will attract the attention of others. 

Our churches should be communities of people who encourage one another to discover and practice the distinct ways that God has created each of us to shine, and who, together, learn to let “the light of Christ within us” shine for the all the world to see—not just during Advent but throughout the year. 

Churches should help us become people who refuse to accept the normalcy of “Black Friday.”  Followers of Christ should demonstrate an alternative way of living in this world—proving that we really can step off the “consumer treadmill” and survive. I can’t help but think that if enough followers of Christ made up their mind to do that, I mean really do it, the light of Jesus would break through in a powerful way this Advent, and it would make a real difference in our churches, our communities, and our world.  

To read previous seasonal reflections from this blog, visit the Advent/Christmas Archives.

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