Who has been forgotten?DAVID WARREN
Call me the Advent grinch, but I am disappointed almost never to endure fire from the pulpit on the desecration of this season of fast.
Note, I did not say shoppers are buying things only for their own consumption. Intangibles come into this. The presentation of gifts has become itself a fairly uncompromising statement of self. It involves gestures that range in intention from the fulfilment of duty to the demand for attention. There is a calculus of debt: the requirement to balance accounts between giver and receiver, with subtle mutual signalling to slow the rate of inflation. Under these circumstances, over time, the stress has glided, from gratitude, to clamour.
Products are certainly acquired to be dispensed among family and friends. Though even at this level, I darkly suspect the average shopper spends two dollars on gifts for himself, to every dollar on gifts for others. One gets this impression whenever one notices what people are buying.
This is the secular order of Christmas, in which Christmas carols are played in-store on unending tape-spools, and generic Christmas decorations are spread everywhere about. Market studies have proved that these encourage spending, and it is after all the shopkeeper's task to sell, sell, sell.
There is only the Salvation Army (where it has not actually been banned, or removed to a remote location) to remind of the non-secular order. They are playing carols themselves, and collecting cash, like everyone else. But their mere presence reminds of that other order.
The subversion, not so much of Christmas as of the season of Advent, by commercialism, is of course an old saw. It has been unfolding for a couple of centuries now, so that muttering against it has long lost the power of breaking news. The Christmas season (from the Midnight Mass, forward through 12 days) is only slightly subverted by the welt of "boxing" sales. But only because it is already done in by the Advent subversion – in which the necessary period of fast and preparation has been overwhelmed by the shopping, plus the sybaritic glee of Christmas parties.
Instead, we self-proclaimed Christians limp along with this perverse reversal of the cycle, and instead of fast then feast, we commit ourselves to escalating bloat, followed by a bloated repentance. This is a dynamic in which any guilt we might feel is redirected – from the humane sense of sin, to the animal sense of having overdone it.
It is not that the sense of sin is dead, for it is written into our souls and into our very organisms; and it will never die, much though we might wish. Rather, the focus of this sense – of our own unworthiness, of our need for grace – has been diverted from moral failure, to petty things, such as our need to diet.
Yet the message of Christmas is surely symbolized in "the gift." The coming into this world of Christ was the purest Gift, of the self-giving God, bespeaking also the gift of life, and of salvation. We are here, and in God's love we can never be forgotten, never thrown away. How appropriate then to prepare for Christmas by acts of selfless and invisible charity. It is a season to seek out the poor and the lonely; to give not things, as objective counters, but more radically of ourselves. Our time is worth anyway more than our money.
St Francis Assisi preached that, at Christmas, we should give special attention to the feeding, and to the warmth and comfort, of our animals. How typical of him to add an absurdly whimsical, and lyrical aside: "Especially our sisters, the larks."
But why indulge the oxen, and the swine? Because only by creature comforts can the dumb beasts know that it is Christmas. I fear that for all our technological sophistication, we have sunk to the condition of those beasts. For we, ourselves, only know it's Christmas by the extra feed and the creature comforts.
The keeping of Christmas lists is a sensible enough practice, given the "calculus of debt" I mentioned above. We must keep track of our obligations, and whether on paper or in electronic form, be sure that no one has been forgotten. Nothing wrong with honest accountancy.
But suppose, for a moment, that we stare into our list, and ask ourselves again, "Who has been forgotten?" Forgotten, perhaps, through many years; forgotten and abandoned. And so think harder: Who has been forgotten?
Among Christ's gifts were two great commands. First, to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And a second commandment that is "like unto it": to love your neighbour as yourself. "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
In which light: Who has been forgotten?
This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.
David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled – especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.
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