I have to be honest, Thanksgiving holds a great deal of rather acute tension for me. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful when Thanksgiving Day rolled around…thankful even. And not only for some time off from a job that had not been going as well as I’d hoped, but also for the provision that God has provided for us during a big time of transition. But its also clear that in the wider American culture Thanksgiving is just really Black Friday Eve, a day which serves as a convenient means to advertise while we watch football and stuff ourselves. As a culture we go from a day set aside (we are told) for thanks to a day specifically created for consumption and the cult of consumerism – Black Friday, a truly dark day in which people get trampled, pummeled, and even killed for cheap crap. But I ask: is it any surprise that with the entrenchment of such a formative cultural liturgy that people act in accordance with the narrative of consumerism in which they have been shaped?
It may seem strange to some to refer to Black Friday as part of a ‘cultural liturgy’, but James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom (rightly I think) advocates such a designation in order to “unveil the character of what presents itself as benign” and to even “recognize the charged, religious nature of cultural institutions [ie, the mall] that we all intend to inhabit as if they were neutral sites.” But as Smith contends, the mall is not a neutral site and it does indeed have its own liturgy, its own formative pedagogy of desire, its own form of worship that shapes what we love and forms us into particular kinds of persons who desire a certain kind of kingdom.
“The mall is a religious institution because it is a liturgical institution, and it is a pedagogical institution because it is a formative institution.” (Smith, 22-24, 54-55)
The Saturday after Black Friday I have come to think of as ‘Sandwich Saturday’, as it falls between Black Friday and the first Sunday of Advent. ‘Sandwich Saturday’ for me is filled with an eschatological tension of sorts between two ways of marking time, between two kingdoms if you will. The kingdom represented by Black Friday marks time with the narrative of consumerism and what we might call the ‘Hallmark Holy-days’ (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Memorial Day, New Years), which create a distinctly American liturgy which feeds the narrative of consumerism. It is here that a co-opted Christmas day comes to basically serve as the bookend opposite to Black Friday in the quasi-holy observance of the ‘Holiday Sopping Season’.
During this time of year I have a confession to make: I really don’t care if store clerks tell me ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’. The so called ‘War on Christmas’ is really about the dissipation of Christendom and ‘cultural Christianity’ which are just as much co-optings of Christmas as American consumerism, and indeed, are most often wed tightly to the consumeristic narrative. Christians who insist that store clerks should say ‘Merry Christmas’ all the while ringing up the latest stack of presents on an already maxed out credit card are seriously missing the irony. In my opinion for stores to say ‘Happy Holidays’ is the most appropriate thing because it brings to the light exactly what the ‘Holiday Shopping Season’ is, the staple of the American liturgical year – narrating us into the civil religion of consumerism, with the marketers serving as our chief priests, and retail stores and mall our cathedrals.
The season of Advent marks the beginning of the church year and specifically marks time with the narrative of Christ. Smith offers some instructive words to help us understand how Advent and the Christian liturgical year help us to mark time differently. He says,
“the Christian observation of Advent marks a different orientation to time, particularly when it is recognized that Advent is a penitential season of denial and self-examination rather than accumulation, consumption, and self-indulgence. The distinct marking of time that is integral to historic Christian worship establishes a sense that the church is a ‘peculiar people,’ and the liturgical calendar already constitutes a formative matrix that functions as a counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture.” (156-57)
And he continues,
“During Advent each year, the Christian year teaches us to once again become Israel, recognizing our sin and need, that waiting, longing, hoping, calling, praying for the coming of the Messiah, the advent of justice, and the inbreaking of shalom. We go through the ritual of desiring the kingdom – a kind of holy impatience – by reenacting Israel’s longing for the coming of the King. We are called to be a people of expectancy – looking for the coming (again) of the Messiah.” (157-58)
And he finally concludes,
“We are called to be a people of memory…citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by ‘the contemporary.’ The practices of Christian worship over the liturgical year form in us something of an ‘old soul’ that is perpetually pointed to a future, longing for a coming kingdom, and seeking to be such a stretched people in the present who are a foretaste of the coming kingdom.” (159, bold mine)
An ecclesia of people who are a ‘foretaste of the kingdom’ – this is what we are to be. My suggestion here is that the best way to go about being this sort of people (well, at least a first step) is not to take part in the civil religious culture war over ‘Happy Holidays’ vs ‘Merry Christmas’ but to adopt a counter liturgy and counter story to the ‘Holiday Shopping Season’ in the form of the ancient Christian observance of Advent – both individually and ecclesially/communally. With Smith we can say that this counter liturgy and counter story of Advent and the church year shapes our desire, and our love, for an alternative Kingdom to the kingdom of the god of American consumerism.
At this point I have another confession to make: it frustrates me that it seems that everywhere I look there is a failure to make the Advent/Kingdom link that is essential. The missing piece in most Advent observances that I see (just as with the huge missing aspect in how we talk about the gospel) is the Kingdom piece. The stories surrounding the birth of Christ in the Gospels all have to do with the clash of kingdoms and the subversion of all earthly kingdoms. Advent is a recapitulation in liturgical form and celebration of the coming of, not merely a personal savior (I have become convinced that if you only know Jesus as personal savior you don’t really know Jesus!), but of the liberating King Jesus as a baby in the incarnation.
The four weeks of Advent traditionally focus on four themes with corresponding candles that lead up to the Christ candle. In the church we attend, the themes for this year are: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love (this is basically traditional but there can be variation. The Mosaic Bible uses Longing, Hope, Anticipation, and Preparation for its themes). My point here is that (it seems) most folks make these themes almost purely existential, that is, something they experience or feel on the inside as an individual. But, without denigrating the importance of feelings, I want to suggest that these themes are ecclesial and communal more than they are individual and that they correspond most specifically to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love that comes with liberating King Jesus is about so much more than existential goosebumps – not just the hope inside me somewhere, but Kingdom hope for the world; not just the peace I feel, but Kingdom peace for the world; not just the joy I experience inwardly, but Kingdom joy for the world; not just the love I have for myself, but Kingdom love for the world.
The season of waiting and preparation of Advent is a season of forming ourselves and our desires, our loves, into Kingdom people who desire the Kingdom and the liberating King Jesus above all things. Advent is about more than what we feel, it is about the Kingdom and King we love and serve.
Therefore I think the questions before us are thus:
Whose story do we tell?
Which liturgy shall form us?
The story and liturgy of the American cult of consumerism…
The story and liturgy of Christendom and ‘cultural Christianity’…
…or the story of Christ and the counter liturgy of the church year?
What Kingdom will we desire?
The consumerist kingdom and civil religion of Western/American capitalism…
The kingdom of Western Christendom and American civil religion…
…or the true Kingdom of our liberating King Jesus.
Whose story? Which liturgy? What Kingdom?
Our answers to these questions will determine the kind of people we are, the people whose we are, and what it is that we love.
While you’re here check out the latest Advent Conspiracy video from Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston, who echoes James K.A. Smith’s point about liturgy and formation well when he says, “Is the system we’ve invested our lives in, is it corrupt? Are these the people God made us to be?” [Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All]
Advent Conspiracy – Black Friday
Advent Conspiracy – Enter the Story 2011 [also check out Living Water International]