‘In a consumerist culture, the quest for happiness becomes a tyrannical force which makes us believe we must have it all. Having it all is what joy demands of us’.
This is a quotation from a book by Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University. When I was reading it earlier this week it occurred to me that these words sum up rather a lot of what this time of the year has sadly become. In a culture which in many ways has abandoned religious belief, the dominant theme of Christmas has become consumerism. People are constantly offered goods and possessions as the ultimate goal of these weeks – desires and ‘wants’, we are told will be the source of true joy. Alas, we find out that this joy is short-lived (New Year’s day, usually) and really rather empty. Telling people they can have what they want simply if they spend enough money will only ever be a path to a counterfeit joy.
But true joy is what this third Sunday of Advent is about. Just after the extract above Professor Beattie writes ‘The recuperation of our capacity for joy entails letting go of this consuming and consumerist fantasy’. How do we recover a true sense of joy? It is associated with this Sunday because today is called Gaudete Sunday, from the first words of the Entrance Antiphon for the Mass: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.’ Like the Fourth Sunday of Lent, it operates as a mid-term point when we allow ourselves a little relief in the liturgy from the austerity of Advent: we are allowed to have the organ played before and after the Mass, not just to help us sing; we are allowed flowers in the sanctuary; and here, at any rate, purple vestments are replaced by rose pink (which is why the third Advent candle is pink). Of course it is not joy immediately gratified, but the joy of prayerful anticipation and waiting for the coming of Our Lord into the world, for the coming of his kingdom.
Part of what Professor Beattie’s book is about are the ways in which our desires, at all levels, cannot be separated from what-ever our view is of God: what that can mean is that the reason our culture gets ‘joy’ so wrong at this time of year, the reason why so much which purports to be ‘joy’ is so shallow (perhaps symbolised by the laughing figure of Father Christmas) is that God really isn’t present. We easily go through the motions; what we see in so many settings is a shell, recalling past Christian beliefs; it’s a bit like the grin of the Cheshire cat in the Disney film of Alice in Wonderland remaining after the cat has gone. There isn’t much left.
Of course I realise all this can read like a Scrooge- or Grinch-like rant; it is very easy for clergy to do this. No one should deny the opportunities Advent and Christmas give us for proclaiming the gospel. I know that some are brought (back) to Christianity by means of the contact they may have at Christmas with the life of the Church. But as in other areas of life we are so easily led into a place where we do not look critically at our society, where we do not ask awkward questions about what is happening. Christianity does teach that true joy can be found on earth – the Scriptures, and the teachings of the Church, give us very clear guidance. The key is generous love, and that is what lies behind the giving of gifts which has been so distorted by consumerism. It is generous, overwhelming love which we see in the Christ child in the manger whose coming we await, the outpouring of God’s grace into the world. If we know what this means we will understand how love of self, the false messages of independence and self-reliance, of ‘standing on your own two feet’, are all at odds with what Advent and Christmas are about. They are paths to a fake joy.
Charitable giving at Christmas, which is one of the very good things which happens at this time of year, is a way of living this out. This is by no means restricted to the Christian minority in this country and there are many examples of how many appeals raise more money every year to help people in real and genuine need. Some of these needs are greater than in the past – more and more people depend on food banks, which as Cardinal Nichols recently said, is a disgrace. There are many examples in the life of this parish which show people’s real and religious commitment to charitable giving, to what Catholics traditionally call the ‘works of mercy’. But we need to be careful. It has to mean something, it has to cost us something: and if we feel proud of what we do, as the Lord warns us in the gospels, we devalue what we do. Much more emphasis on giving to the poor has to be part of how we can ‘recuperate joy’, recover it, and make sure our joy is real and authentic.