Down at the mall where my love and I work about once a week I walked through the doors to the food court on the day after Halloween a week and a little while ago. Passing into the food court I heard playing in the background something from the 60′s. It was a kind of Mo-Town recording of Frosty the Snowman; something like that, up-beat, smiley, guaranteed to put you in the mood…the mood to spend money. That is after all the only reason to go to the mall.
It was the first day of November and Christmas was already here. Or should I, out of respect, call it XMAS, and let it signify something entirely different than the old feast. It is the last place, I suppose, outside of a few churches, where one will be able to remember the fact, and observe it after a fashion, that Christmas has once again rolled around. The columns around the food court were decorated with colorfully lit wreaths. Santa’s little perch in the middle of the mall where he will sit in state and dandle little kids on his knee for $25.00 a pop was already in business. The Christmas Shop, in the space only a day before occupied by the Halloween Shop had garlands of phony pine needles, sparkling ornaments and yards of lights hanging where a scant 12 hours before hung goblins and mummies. Walls now dripping with gay decoration only a day ago dripped with bloody horror for sale; another modern marketing sacrilege against an ancient and respectable remembrance, a time set aside to pray for our beloved dead.
The pace will accelerate, the fever will grow, the music will continue to batter the mind and ease the will into the right disposition, a mixture of frenzy and fear, frenzy to get and fear that it may not after all be able to be gotten, to satisfy the equal hunger in the heart of the recipient to receive; a hunger for the bright, the new, the perfectly engineered obsolescent machine, the momentarily stylish garment, the magically soon to be un-popular film, game, cd; the breakable toy, the perfect gift; the one that cannot last.
Be not afraid. Though it last what may seem an eternity of anxiety, frantic hurrying, grasping crowds, angry waiting, immense traffic jams, this season of worry and false cheer, the season of Xmas, it will end soon enough, sometime in the early afternoon of December 25th. That is the time when the Community of Man, having feasted as few may have feasted in the million or so years of our presence here (except for the community meat frenzy around the occasional ten ton wooly mammoth, or the Neronic wallow in hummingbird tongues and other gustatory delights), gathered as one people before the Eye will enjoy The Games. That is the climax of what used to be the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ, God and Man, in Bethlehem, in a manger, warmed by animals, sung by angels, adored by rough shepherds, held by His Virgin Mother Mary, watched over by His foster father Saint Joseph the peasant carpenter.
You will not have heard the name Jesus mentioned, or all the wonderful story of His birth retold in any mall, or sung in any song played there, in all the year; and especially not during this long season of the New Observation of the feast. The primary desire is to keep one from thinking about all of that, about sacrifice, about Love, about salvation, about worship, about Beauty, Truth and Good. You are meant to think about haste, about frenzy, about exhaustion, about anger, about excess of every kind. That is the spirit of Xmas.
The first toy will break by 11:00am on Xmas morning. When, the next day, you visit the Mall to bring back all that could not fit, was not wanted or was broken on opening the music will be a pleasant blend of “recent hits”, the Santa set will have been struck, the decorations gone, the wall bare, the Christmas store closed, its windows papered over. Only business will be conducted as it should be, conducted with surgical efficiency and speed.
Perhaps I should let that be what it is and stop. But then..
Yesterday was the Feast of St. Albert the Great the Dominican philosopher, scientist, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas. He believed among other things that the world around us shone with the glory of God and part of the work of his life, his scientific explorations and discoveries, was in the service of demonstrating that belief, making it plain as day; the world is Good, and True, and Beautiful. His mortal remains lie today in a humble crypt beneath St. Andrew’s Church in Cologne, Germany. Not long ago my wife, Mariellen, and I were there.
St. Andrew’s Church, Cologne, from the tower of Cologne Cathedral
It’s a lovely church just down the street from a magnificent structure, the Cathedral, built be people whose beliefs, if not as sophisticated or scientific as St. Albert’s, matched them. You should make the pilgrimage, perhaps at Christmas time. It will be unlike any Christmas you may have spent since you were a child yourself.
The Gospel yesterday told of Jesus’ conversation with the folks who want to know from Him when the world will end. That short passage was one of the things that got me thinking about all the preparations now underway for Xmas across this wide land in malls and stores and in many homes and many minds; certainly on every TV channel, newspaper and radio station. “How many of them are thinking when the world will end?” ran across my consciousness like a ticker tape.
He answered them this way: ““The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.” Even at the mall.
But, He also said: “The days will come when you will long to see
one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. There will be those who will say to you, ‘Look, there he is,’ or ‘Look, here he is.’
Do not go off, do not run in pursuit. For just as lightning flashes
and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer greatly and be rejected by this generation.”
I thought of the last sentence above while thinking of the Xmas celebrations now taking place across the country.
Yesterday I thumbed through the latest issue of that Journal of Mere Christianity, Touchstone which arrives regularly in my mail. Prof. Anthony Esolen of Providence College in Rhode Island is a Senior Editor, there. In a lead editorial he throws a bomb over the transom into the kind of place the world is becoming. But, he’s got another article at the back of the book, something about a lovely hymn written by Charles Wesley, “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.” Professor Esolen’s short article on that hymn served me perfectly as commentary on the yesterday’s Gospel. He wrote, about the “light” descending, the Light of Christ: ” So in the dark night of Advent we await the coming of the true light that enlightens every man; yet we should remember that light is cool, refreshing waters for those who love the light, and like the glare of an enemy to those who hate it. (Emphasis added.)
He points out through the rest of the article, with quotations from the hymn “this stark ambivalence” in us so masterfully expressed in what he calls the “most majestic of our Advent hymns.” Just a short excerpt should suffice as an example of what he means about the glare.
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!
The Advent of the Malls, the long Xmas orgy, is designed precisely to prevent such things from entering the mind of people who really don’t want to think, and who believe the Little Tale of Bethlehem is sentimental foolishness. Yet, they will sit on several days in the next few weeks and watch wrapped in sentimental foolishness, for the thirtieth time perhaps, The Grinch, Frosty the Snowman, and how many others; ignoring once more heaven’s smallest and heaven’s greatest gift.
Who designs such things as that?
Perhaps you may wish to think about that time, you don’t know when…maybe in the middle of a song while at the mall?, when He will come with clouds descending:
Another version, sung more clearly:
PS: It strikes me a little in my funny bone to know that Providence College, of such a happy name, where Anthony Esolen, whom I think such a happy fellow, is a professor in a Dominican school which without fellows like St. Albert the Great, who was probably great company, would probably not exist.