18 Dec 2011
“[The prophet] Nathan answered the king, ‘Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.’ But that night the Lord spoke [differently] to Nathan …” (2 S 7:3-4) In the name …
There are people out in the world, etymologists by name, who make a living study words. They seldom make the news, except for at this particular time of the year. Etymologists are gathering together at the American Dialect Society and they are discussing among themselves the most popular new word of the year. Last year’s most popular word was “apps.” That’s one of those new-fangled information-age words. It refers to all of the different applications you can add on to your phone or whatever. I don’t even know how to text so I definitely don’t know anything about “apps” either. But this year’s top-contender new word, surprisingly, is not born of the information revolution. It’s a good old-fashioned word. It’s a word built around people, community and a cause. It wasn’t born on the internet. It was born among actual living, breathing people coming together not over the computer, but in person. This year’s projected favourite new word is “occupy.” It’s actually an old word, but it has been invested with new meaning. It springs from all of the “Occupy” movements that have been taking place all around the nation. And it has now entered into our vocabulary as a stand-alone word. Now people can say facetiously as they prepare for the Patriots-Broncos game this afternoon, as they sit down to watch Brady vs. Tebow, they can talk about “Occupy my couch.”
Occupy: An old word given a different meaning, and catching-on, and becoming America’s favourite new word. Maybe that’s a good place to start on this last Sunday of Advent as all eyes are trained on the quickly approaching Christmas celebration. Maybe we can give Christmas a different meaning. I think we’ve all heard that this is the make or break season for retailers. A lot of gifts are going to be changing hands in a week or so. But did you know that when I was in college companies spent about $100 million a year on advertising to kids. That’s a lot of money. But it’s barely a down-payment now-a-days. Today companies are spending $17 billion every year on trying to tell our children what they just absolutely have to have. There are 10 100 million’s in every billion, which means that from the time I was in college to the time my daughter is in college, their spending has increased by 170-fold! That’s in one generation. Christmas has always involved gift-giving. And gift-giving, especially on this Sunday of the Advent wreath’s candle of love, is supposed to be a sign of love.
A bunch of you e-mailed me back about the story concerning the anonymous donors who have gone into K-Marts across the country, and who have paid off the lay-away accounts of families with little children. Lay-away was brought back this year because of the tough economy and the fact that so many families are struggling to get by, but who still want to have something fun for their children to open-up on Christmas. Credit has become a bad word in many of these families. So the stores this year resurrected lay-away programs. You can put a few bucks a week toward the bill, but even those few buck are sometimes hard to come by. That’s where these anonymous donors enter the story. Without fanfare, they have paid off some of these bills. This was one of the nicest and most sincere stories of Christmas-giving that I have heard in a long time, and it is a perfect example of the equation of gift-giving and love.
But all good and decent things can also be perverted, and when $17 billion of advertising is thrown at our children, the connection between gift and giving, between present and stuff, can be blurred. At $17 billion it can start to be not the giving that matters, but just the gift, just the stuff. And so maybe we have to take the word Christmas and invest it with a different meaning, to take it out of the hands of companies and stores who have abused it so terribly, and give it back to people of faith, to people who want to share their love through gift-giving at this special time of the year when we celebrate the greatest gift of all, the coming of God into our world in that Bethlehem baby.
Think about today’s two readings. David wanted to build God a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. Nathan, the court prophet of God, thought this was a grand idea. Then he got home. Then God told him another story. God didn’t need nor want a fancy building. He told His prophet to go back and tell David that God was with him when he was a young shepherd tending his father’s flocks. He was with David when he was being chased by King Saul. He was with David when he was leading Israel’s armies against their enemies. He was there even without a grand building to call His own.
Think about the angel Gabriel being sent to Mary, a commoner, who was then living in the nondescript little village of Nazareth in the larger nondescript province of Galilee. There is intentionally no hint of wealth, power or status here. And yet through this humble woman of Nazareth, God would come into our world. In both cases God give us the gift of Himself without need of extravagance or excess.
On the other hand, I was reading a newspaper article about the increasing inequalities between the very rich and the very poor in our society. We’ve already talked about the lay-away programs, but the rich are doing very well, and their spending on Christmas presents has gone up this year. The reporter was talking to a woman who was looking at designer dresses and sweaters at Neiman Marcus in Natick, after she had already purchased for herself something called Cole Haan boots and an Alice + Olivia winter coat. Her remarks: “Our portfolio is doing better this year my husband tells me.” In which shopping basket is the real Christmas giving to be found, the rich person paying for someone else’s lay-aways or in this last story? Which is closer to the God who said no to the temple and who chose the humble woman Mary? Let us reinvest the word Christmas with the different meaning of its original meaning. Let our gift-giving be signs of love not of excess. And may this be our prayer as we await the glorious news of the birth of Jesus. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo