Tag Archives: materialism

Ho, Ho, Ho-sanna!

The results of a new survey by the Bible Society (U.K.) on what Britons know about Christmas were published in The Telegraph this morning, and they give us some rather surprising results.  For example, of the 1,000 adults and 1,000 children surveyed only 26% of the respondents knew that the Virgin Mary was betrothed, but not yet married, to St. Joseph at the time she became pregnant.  Now the fact that in this survey 37 people responded that Father Christmas – aka Santa Claus – was the first to drop by Bethlehem to see the Baby Jesus made me raise an arched eyebrow.  No matter how ignorant contemporary society may be, this seems to me to be one of those leg-pulling results, where those being surveyed decide to give bizarre answers for the sake of annoying the pollster.

In a weird way however, the mistake of believing Santa Claus dropped by the manger on Christmas Eve offers an opportunity for conversation with those who perhaps think that Christmas is just for kids, or is nothing more than a commercial scam, or that Jesus Himself never existed, and so on.  For Santa Claus, of course, is a secularized version of St. Nicholas, the great 4th century bishop and champion of Christian orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea.  Personally, I have always liked the image of Santa kneeling by the manger, for it puts him into perspective: God is God, and we are not, even when He comes to be born in such a humble fashion.

That being said, the results of the survey which mistakenly place St. Nicholas in Bethlehem do bring home to us the fact that in Britain, a significant percentage of the population is simply no longer Christian, but rather some sort of melange of Christianity, Gnosticism  and bad Christmas movies.  This is why there is such an urgent need for re-evangelization both in Europe and in this country, since unfortunately I suspect that such a survey if conducted in America would probably turn up somewhat similar results.  There is also a need for an overall attitude shift toward one of looking for opportunities to ask questions and not be afraid of addressing the answers.

In assuming that we live in a society which is overwhelmingly Christian, many of us are probably guilty of a kind of laziness which has allowed all sorts of anti-Christian nonsense to be given attention which it does not deserve, particularly at this time of year.  It is the same kind of laziness which over the past century has allowed all kinds of ideological pigs – Margaret Sanger, for example – to escape from their intellectual mud puddles and wreak havoc all over the place.  So-called elites champion the cause of an ideological minority, with the blessing of the media, and thereby convince us that in fact, they are the new majority, the new orthodoxy.  And gradually, regrettably, over time we come to believe it, through some combination of a sense of inevitability, ignorance, and pessimism.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way, but it does require that you stand up for what you profess to believe.  Consider being brave enough to ask your next-door neighbor, the lady you always see in the supermarket, and so on, if they are celebrating Christmas this year, and if they are, why they are doing so in the first place.  And while perhaps their answers may disturb you, if they are anything like those in this new survey, then congratulations!  You have just found yourself an opportunity to try to counteract what has been happening to Western Christianity over the past several decades.

Much as St. Nicholas himself fought against the overwhelming popularity of Arianism in his day in order to champion the Divinity of Christ, take advantage of the opportunity of contemporary ignorance to help bring Christmas back to what it actually means.  You do not have to give the devil his due.  For despite all the bad catechesis, secular materialism, atheist chic, and so on, you can witness to your faith where you are right now, as we enter this final full week of Advent.  It just takes a bit of courage and love, which none of these dark forces can take away, to take that one-on-one step of sharing with someone else.

Santa

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Again I Say, Rejoice

As we have now passed the Third Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday as it is traditionally known in the Latin Rite Church, we are less than two weeks away from Christmas Eve.  Some of us were prepared for Christmas weeks or even months ago, with a few details to work out here and there.  Others of us will be scrambling around until the last minute to do the things that we feel need to be done before Christmas arrives.  Though perhaps the majority of us will find ourselves somewhere inbetween these two extremes, with the odd unexpected crisis or two to deal with at the last minute. For a time of year when we are told that we should be rejoicing, many of us are instead feeling rather miserable.

Take for example the fact that I know some of my readers are having a slow time of it right now with their own businesses, whether because December is simply not their busiest month, or because they are experiencing the economic slowdown firsthand. Others have been laid off and unable to find work for some time now, or had the unpleasant shock of being let go within the last couple of weeks, just as both the weather and tradition start to insist that we dramatically increase our expenditures. Christmas, for many of these people, does not seem to be much reason for rejoicing.

In my own life, professionally, I cannot simply use my superpowers to make sure that everything I would like to accomplish on behalf of my clients and employer comes to fruition before I take time off for Barcelona at Christmas, because so much of what I do is dependent upon the decisions of other people.  This means that I have to spend a lot of time waiting around for others to make a decision, or trying to persuade them to do what I would like them to do.  On top of which, of course, there is the double-whammy of trying to do all that I would like to on behalf of others in my personal life, while preparing to travel to another country.  The reality of the former is that I cannot afford to give gifts or donations to every person or every cause that I would like to be able to.  The latter creates all sorts of problems of its own.

Thus, I will be trying to get as many things done as possible over this week.  At various points my nerves will be frayed and my temper will flare up, or I will experience waves of nauseating anxiety. And I will undoubtedly have a sense of failure to some degree, when I eventually realize that it is not all going to come together as perfectly or miraculously as I might hope.

And none of this – absolutely NONE of it – means anything, if I am not focused on the rejoicing brought about by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In yesterday’s reading from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle to the Gentiles tells us: “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” This is not a “when you feel like it” or “when things are going great” bit of counsel, but rather an exhortation to do so at ALL times. If it is the Will of God that you have a wonderful Christmas like something glittery off of a Hallmark card, then rejoice in it. If it is the Will of God that you have a miserable Christmas of watching your extended family members all arguing with each other, or experiencing feelings of loneliness because you happen to be on your own, or not having much merriment because times are tough financially or because you cannot afford to take any time off, then rejoice in that, as well.

How strange it is that we expect things to be perfect to commemorate the Birth of a Man who promised us that we were not going to have a very nice time of it on Earth at all. This is the same Man who said He did not come to bring peace and niceness, but division and final judgment, and who taught that we ought to rejoice if we suffered from poverty, hunger, and persecution, among other miseries. How very selfish we Christians have become, when it is more important that we get the “right” Christmas tree, or wrapping paper, or unnecessary gift, than that we spend time in reflection on what it means for God to deign to become one of us, in order that He might save us from ourselves and our focus on material nonsense – all of which will rot and pass away.

There are twelve days remaining until Christmas Eve, gentle reader, and you will no doubt have a lot to do in the run-up to that night. Yet if you are not taking time during this period of Advent for prayer and reflection each day to prepare for Christmas by rejoicing in your spiritual salvation, but are instead focused on preparing for Christmas materially, then frankly, you are doing it wrong. You are celebrating the Winter Solstice, or Saturnalia, or something else, but you are not celebrating Christmas.

While you are still able, make a point of spending a few minutes, each day, between now and Christmas praying and thinking about God and your relationship with Him – recognizing that your salvation would have been impossible without his Birth, Death, and Resurrection, and rejoicing in the fact that God loves you enough to have humbled Himself in this way, for you. You can read your Bible or a spiritual book or reflection; you can listen to or watch the many types of spiritual programming available 24 hours a day. And you can do all of this over the internet, since clearly you have access to it if you are viewing this post, which has already taken several minutes of your time to read.

Spending time rejoicing over the gift of God Himself at Christmas, and all that has meant for humankind, is not going to be difficult if you make a point of it over the next several days. It will be easier and ultimately more rewarding preparation than packing a suitcase, sorting out your bank accounts, or finding what to get for Aunt Phyllis. Be joyful that this is the case.


“Angel Musicians” by Hans Memling (c. 1485)
Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp

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All I Want for Christmas Is More

This is the time of year when an excessive amount of stupid, selfish decisions are made with respect to material possessions, and the acquisition of more and more of them.  I will assume, gentle reader, that you are not one of those persons who is now so wrapped up in wrapping things up, as it were, that you are pulling out your hair trying to think of things you want to purchase for yourself and for others.  However being flawed and imperfect as he is, The Courtier must get off his chest the fact that he needs to take a step back, and try to stop himself from diving into an inky-black sea of self-gratification and materialism that every year tries to blot out the Christ from Christmas, leaving only the “mas” – which in Spanish, as it happens, is the word for “more”.

In my own case, I am headed to Barcelona for Christmas, and there are many things that I would like to have for my trip.  I would like a new topcoat, for example.  I would also like a new suitcase, new dress shoes, new sunglasses, and perhaps a new sweater or two.  And all of this beside the fact that I would like to give gifts to certain family and friends which I hope will be creative and unusual, carefully matched to the person’s particular interests.

Yet if I consider this list of “would like” items, it becomes clear that all of it, even the gifts for others, is really more about self-gratification than about necessity:

Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I do not lack for outerwear, for example; I could probably wear a different coat or jacket, not including such quasi-outerwear items such as blazers or suit jackets, every day for a couple of weeks, without wearing the same item twice. I have so little need for a suitcase that I generally make do with a weekend-sized bag (of which I own three in addition to a garment bag), and the one suitcase I do own, which is in perfectly adequate condition to be taken on my forthcoming trip, needs to be dusted periodically as it sees such infrequent use. The floor of my closet is clogged with so much footwear, from dress shoes to ankle boots to trendy sneakers and everything in between, that it looks like a kind of massive jumble sale which I have to dig through every morning, apart from the two pairs of tall boots I also own having to stand in a corner of the room like sentinels, because I do not have the space for them.  I presently own three pairs of Italian-made sunglasses from a high-end fashion house, all of which are in perfectly good order and not broken, scratched, or even nicked. And even after bagging up and donating some older but perfectly serviceable sweaters for the poor at the beginning of autumn, I still have so many crewnecks, v-necks, cardigans, and turtlenecks, that I have no room on the two long shelves they take up for any more.

When it comes to gift-giving, I have to purchase gifts for certain members of my family, for my god-daughter, my secretary, and a few others.  Rather than take the easy way out and getting a gift card (which seems as impersonal as simply handing over some dosh), or just picking something random at a reasonable price at the first department store or retail emporium I enter (which seems thoughtless), I tend to think, and think, and think about things that the recipient has mentioned wanting or needing over the past year.  I then end up doing so much comparison shopping to try to find exactly the right item for each individual, that the investment of time I put in often sours me to the entire process, and sometimes all of my unseen effort is rewarded by a reaction which is one of gratitude, but not the paroxysms of delight which I had secretly hoped for.

All of the forgoing is, in a word, selfishness, and obtaining material goods at Christmas will remain such if it is not tempered by both reason and a willingness to walk away from the desire to have or to give nice things, when such desires become burdensome.  It is patently clear that I do not need any of the personal items I would like, particularly when I have so very much already.  Nor do I need to kill myself to try to impress someone else with my gift-giving abilities, when I am supposed to be  expressing love and appreciation, rather than trying to aggrandize myself in the process.

The point of Christmas, after all, is a gift of the self, the Divine Self, freely and miraculously given.  If this is not the central reason why one is celebrating Christmas, then what is being celebrated is a commercial construct, or the Winter Solstice, and nothing more.  Christ is the example whom Christians are told to emulate, and that being the case, the fact that He came into this world naked, in dire circumstances, surrounded by animal filth, ought to tell us something about how God thinks we ought to value material possessions.

This is not to say that we should never buy anything at this time of year.  However we ought to take a moment to sit down and breathe, pour ourselves a glass of something caffeinated or fermented, and reflect.  Perhaps it would be good to make a true and unflinching list of what we would like, versus what we in fact actually need, both for ourselves and for others.  If we act with honesty, forcing ourselves to make hard choices that take us out of the insane commercialism and peer pressure that have come to characterize Christmas, then the celebration of this great feast of our salvation will be kept to the forefront, rather than shunted off to the sidelines until we have finished all of our shopping.

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Over The Limit and Through The Malls

While The Courtier is not prepared to stop bathing, and infest himself with either lice or Timothy Leary-esque logorrhoea, he must admit that he is beginning to wonder whether we have gone too far in our embrace of consumerism, when it comes to marking the times and seasons of life here in the United States. This has always been, thank goodness, a nation of consumers who actually like to consume, rather than falsely claiming that they do not like having a wide range of goods and services at various price points to choose from – whether we are talking about butter, guns, or tablet computers. And yet, there has to be some point at which the love of “stuff”, such as it is, makes way for the love of families, friends, and country.

Yesterday the Twitterverse started chatting about the fact that a number of national retailers decided to start their upcoming Black Friday sales early: and by early, either on Thanksgiving itself, or at midnight as Thanksgiving rolls into Black Friday. The national news media is now picking up on this story, as retailers across the country are adopting earlier and earlier opening times to try to take advantage of fewer shoppers during our economic malaise. According to one report from CNN:

This year marks Target’s earliest opening ever. Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, and Kohl’s are all opening at midnight on Thanksgiving eve. Wal-Mart recently announced plans to open its doors to the public at 10 p.m., then Toys R Us followed suit, announcing it would open most stores as early as 9 p.m. the day before Black Friday.

For my non-American readers, it should be explained that Black Friday is the day which falls after Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday commemorated on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving of course, needs little or no introduction, other than to say it is a near-universally beloved holiday in this country, as being one of the very few times of year when overworked Americans take the day off. Most everything other than basic services grinds to a complete halt, so that people can gather with family and friends, and be thankful that they have each other, and this great country to live in, with all of the bounty, hope, and possibilities available here.

Black Friday has been, for many years, a day that generates so much retail sales volume, because many people have or take the day off, and want to start their Christmas shopping, that many retailers go “into the black” in their accounting ledgers for the year, just from the sales generated on this one day. Traditionally, many American retailers held off promoting their Christmas merchandise and putting up their decorations, or making their special seasonal sales and discount pitches, until the day after Thanksgiving. Fortunately, some such as Nordstrom still do – and they should be applauded for it.

Let no one accuse this scrivener of being some sort of economic hypocrite, protesting against capitalism while tweeting from my iPhone and wearing an overpriced, fleece-insulated jacket made in China out of plastic fibers picked up from a yuppie outdoors retailer. When it comes to the embrace of the wealth of consumer products available for purchase, this truly is the land of plenty. The Courtier thoroughly enjoys patronizing retail establishments of all sorts, and savours finding a great bargain on a bold sartorial item or the like.

Yet there is no real justification other than pure greed to explain opening a toy store at 9:00 pm on Thanksgiving, since the sole purpose of such a promotional tactic is to persuade people to leave their families on a holiday, in order to spend their money on products which are not necessities. Nor is there any moral imperative to explain why people should be encouraged to leave the house before midnight, in order to stand in line in the cold and the dark just to purchase a new blender at a discount. In these and other cases, consumers can make such purchases in the morning, if they choose, after they have recovered from the feast shared with the family the evening before.

Moreover, all of these shops need to be staffed, in order to provide their products to shoppers. While the corporate heads who decided to open on Thanksgiving night are tucked soundly in their beds, their employees will be cutting short Thanksgiving dinner, or possibly avoiding their turkey altogether so as not have the tryptophan turn them into somnambulants. They will down pots of coffee in order to head in to work, to provide sales assistance, security, stocking, and the other services of their employment, without which these overnight sales cannot happen.

The only explanation for the tawdry policies and tactics adopted by those major retailers engaging in this practice is that the worship of Mammon has taken over nearly any semblance of remaining decency and respect for American values, both on the part of these retailers, and on the part of those consumers who will respond to their siren song. Putting profit ahead of one of the most cherished and long-lived American traditions, and one which thank goodness has virtually no consumer goods attached to it other than the foods we eat, is insulting to the people of this country. And those among our citizenry who choose to participate in it ought to be equally ashamed of themselves, particularly those who will push their credit cards to their limits just to take advantage of hoarding goods from the malls and shopping centers that they really do not need.

The present state of the union is one marred by spiraling debt burdens, tremendous levels of unemployment, smelly anarchism, and so on. Americans need holidays like Thanksgiving to step back from all of this, and to be with those they care about – to share a good meal, to relive old memories, and to make new ones. Do not doubt that this writer is no leftist, in any sense of that term. However, it still must be said that it is a great pity that our national retailers cannot see past their bottom line, in this instance, to recognize that some things are more sacred than the pursuit of profit, and that some shoppers will put materialism at the top of their priority list.


“The Road, Winter” by Currier & Ives (1853)

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The Portals of Heaven

Although there is still a little bit of work to do with lighting and one or two other details, the new front doors at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in Washington, D.C. are now in place. The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl, will be coming to dedicate the new doors on Sunday, November 20, 2011 at the 11:00 am mass for the Feast of Christ the King, and I have been fortunate enough to be selected to serve as one of the lectors for the mass and dedication. The process of commissioning, fundraising, and installing these beautiful doors has been several years in the making, but they are already doing precisely what it was hoped they would: attract attention from those passing by the church, inviting them to linger.  Yet I also hope that they will call people to reflect on what makes a Catholic a Catholic, particularly for those of us who choose to pass through these portals every Sunday on our way to mass.

The bronze panels inset into the doors are the work of Philadelphia-based artist Anthony Visco, and depict scenes from the life of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose life and death are recounted in The Acts of the Apostles. I took some photographs [N.B. apologies for the somewhat poor quality] yesterday morning before mass, and present them to you below. The large, central double doors showing the panels with the martyrdom of St. Stephen and his vision of Christ in Heaven will only be opened for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or visits from the Archbishop. The two smaller doors on either side, which feature panels showing scenes from the life of St. Stephen and the early community of Christians under the Apostles, serve as the main points of entry into the church.

As you can see St. Stephen’s is not, on the outside anyway, a particularly inviting building. The interior of the present church is a wonderful mix of architectural ideas from people like Gaudi and Saarinen, all parabolic arches and cool spaces. The exterior however, presents something of a blank wall to the passerby, which unfortunately is the case with many buildings built during the Eisenhower-Kennedy years.

So it was interesting while taking these pictures yesterday, and then standing far back for several minutes and thinking about the doors, that a significant number of passersby did exactly what I recall our previous pastor, Msgr. Filardi, hoped they would do. The doors would catch someone’s eye, and they would stop and look at them. Sometimes they would just pause for a minute or two, but some people did so for several minutes.  Others went up to the bronze panels to examine them more closely, and to touch them. Some people even then took the opportunity to open one of the doors and step into the church for a few minutes, and came out holding a copy of the parish bulletin.

Clearly this is an example of church art that appears to be serving its purpose very well, and well-designed doors can certainly make a difference, particularly compared to the somewhat dark and dingy, unadorned doors that used to mark the entrance to St. Stephen’s. Of course, probably the most famous ecclesiastical doors in the world are those with the 24 magnificent bronze door panels made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Cathedral Baptistery in Florence, and which Michelangelo himself once called “The Gates of Paradise”. Beautiful as our new doors at St. Stephen’s are, I do not mean to suggest that they are equal to Ghiberti’s masterpiece. Yet in showing the death of St. Stephen, these doors do provide something more than simply a decorative entrance to our church building: they are a reminder that being a Christian means being prepared to sacrifice everything for Christ and His Church, as St. Stephen did, to gain access to the portals of Heaven.

Frankly, it was a bold decision to portray the martyrdom of St. Stephen so publicly, on such a large scale, in an age and in a city where so many in the press, in public office, and the commentariat would prefer that Catholics would keep their mouths shut, or at least keep to themselves and “play nice”. These doors tell those who reject and fight against the Church that we are not prepared to capitulate to the false philosophies of moral relativism and materialism, merely because public opinion happens to be heading in one direction or another. Rather, we believe we have something better, and something infinitely more permanent than public opinion, to guide us in how we live our lives – something which those outside of the Church can be a part of as well, if only they would choose to come in.

At the same time, these doors are a reminder to those of us within the Church that the call to holiness may very well require us to reject what the world tells we must accept or do. To be a Christian is not simply about being nice to people for the sake of being nice. If you want to be nice, there are plenty of religions or non-religions where you can go be nice to people without the burden of having to carry a cross.

We have grown too comfortable with the idea of a laid-back, Baby Boomer concept of Christ, going about acting like some sort of perennially smiling 1970′s guru, spreading peace, love, and hash about the Judean countryside.  The truth of the matter is that Christ speaks far more about the wages of sin, God’s judgement, and the redemptive power of suffering and sacrifice in the Gospels far more than He does about anything else. Jesus’ bloody, public execution was embraced and emulated in the countless bloody, public executions of the early martyrs who followed Him, including St. Stephen. These men and women built the Church not on the ramblings of some sort of hippie philosopher telling people to “Have A Nice Day”, but on their firm belief in Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

We forget very often in this country, perhaps because it has been so long since Catholics were persecuted and discriminated against, that we must be prepared to lose everything because of our Faith: our family and friends, our livelihoods, our freedoms, or even our lives. Yet the reward for losing everything, as St. Stephen saw in his vision at the moment of his martyrdom, is worth far more than the cost. For then one may finally meet Christ in Heaven, see Him face to face, and hear Him tell us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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