If it seems like the holiday season is starting earlier this year, there’s a good reason.
You probably noticed it. Halloween decorations still were up in the stores when they started stocking the shelves for Christmas. You had holiday wrapping paper sitting next to plastic pumpkins.
Then, it started to spread.
Wal-Mart led the way with big pre-holiday bargains that began just this past Friday, trumpeting “Black Friday” sales two weeks early. Some online deals started even earlier. Analysts say that with Thanksgiving so late this year, there are fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas—only 26—so retailers are being more aggressive. Macy’s —the store that for many symbolizes the essence of Christmas—is opening its doors for the first time this year on Thanksgiving Day, to kick start the Christmas shopping season.
Stores aren’t the only ones.
In Oswego, New York a radio station started playing all Christmas music, 24/7, on October 5th. In Manhattan, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was delivered and set up on November 8th—almost a full month before it’s scheduled to be lit.
It can feel like we are being Christmas-ed to death. And it’s still 12 more days until Thanksgiving.
But then: we get hit with today’s gospel.
In the middle of all the energy and the music and the decorating … we’re reminded that it’s all going to be gone. Like the Jews who were marveling at the temple, we are shocked back to reality.
Jesus talks of wars and insurrections. Earthquakes, famines, plagues, imprisonment, torture.
That doesn’t exactly put you in the holiday mood, does it?
Jesus was trying to prepare his followers for the final judgment. And the Church is now trying to prepare us for Advent — the season of waiting, and watching, which begins in just two weeks. Ordinary Time is drawing to a close.
And so we are given that sobering gospel reading. And we are introduced to the liturgy of the word this Sunday with the words from Malachi, the final book of the Old Testament. They are words of both prophecy…and promise.
“The day is coming,” he writes. ”There will rise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
We hear once again Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians. He encourages them to imitate their teachers, and continue to work quietly and prayerfully.
Indeed, Paul’s message echoes Christ’s. The last words Jesus speaks in the gospel should ring in our ears and our hearts over the next few weeks:
“By your perseverance, you will secure your lives.”
Persevere. Stay strong. Have faith. And you will be saved.
All of this, of course, is far from our minds this time of year. Most of us are not worried about our salvation right now. We’re worried about what to get the in-laws, and how to survive the crowds at the airport.
We’re worried about “persevering and securing our lives” at the checkout line.
But instead, the Church asks us to stop. And think.
Before we become swamped by the sales and the music and the Salvation Army bell-ringers – even before we start to trim the church in purple and light the Advent wreath – we need to take time, and take stock.
The inconvenient truth is: the world we know will disappear.
But we are assured of salvation. “The sun of justice” will rise.
Over the last 20 centuries, across all the generations that have lived, men and women and children have heard these readings proclaimed from pulpits around the world, and recognized in some way the signs of their own times. Every age has had its cataclysms—its typhoons and hurricanes, its wars and uprisings. For us, it may be that cable television and the Internet now make it all more immediate and instantaneous. Everything seems to unfold in our own living rooms—or on our smartphones.
And so it may be that the dire words of the scriptures matter more to us now. The warnings sound more urgent.
Yet, every generation has needed a savior.
Every century has hungered for hope.
You’ll be hearing a lot in the next few weeks about the real meaning of Christmas. That is a big part of it. Underneath all the commercialism and the carols, the tinsel and tree-trimming that comes earlier and earlier each year, the world is called to hope and to pray.
We hope and pray for salvation.
We pray for an end to suffering, an end to persecution. We pray to endure this world, and to be worthy of the next.
We pray, as Jesus asks us, to persevere.
So this Sunday, before the season overwhelms us, we pause to reflect, and remember.
We remember just how fleeting and impermanent everything around us really is.
It may seem like this Sunday’s readings are jarring and out of sync with the secular calendar – a lot gloomier than what we see on the streets and in the store windows.
But I think it couldn’t be more timely. These are words we need to hear.
The season of waiting is about to begin.
We wait for that new dawn…one that will bring us, as the scripture reminds us, the sun of justice.