Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight….” Luke 3:4
I confess, each year in Advent, I find myself in something of a quandary. One the one hand, I love the glitz and glitter that is part and parcel of this time of year, the so-called “Christmas shopping season.” After all, I grew up in New York City. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was the “kick-off” to it all. As a kid in New York, and later as an adult, I often attended it in person. One year, my mother even got us bleacher seats in front of Macy’s Herald Square. Talk about “bragging rights” in school!
Before Christmas Day each year, my mother would take my twin brother and me and, after he was born, our little brother Ted, around the City to look at all the amazing windows—from Macy’s Herald Square, to Saks Fifth Avenue. A major Christmas highlight was going to F.A.O Schwarz. In the days before Toys-R-Us, this was the toy “Mecca” of the United States. Even their catalog was amazing. My brother and I would drool over the most exotic and elaborate toys. Of course, a part of the pre-Christmas festivities were the Christmas specials—A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolf, Frosty the Snowman and all the rest. Yup, I loved them. I loved them all. I still do, and especially as I get to share some of these experiences with grandchildren.
Still, I recognize that there is a disconnect between this narrative and my faith narrative. Advent, the holy season of expectation and waiting makes this clear. There are hints in the mysterious words of the prophets, “You, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel…” (Micah 5:2). The disconnect is made explicit in John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the wilderness, with words of confrontation: You brood of vipers! Who told you to feel form the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:7-8) and in the annunciations to Mary and to Joseph, Do not be afraid…you will bear a son….she will bear a son…he will save his people from their sins… Yes, I long for the coming of Christ anew into our world and into our lives, the coming anew of Christ into my life! There is so much evil in the world, so much anger and hatred. This sinful, broken, world of ours is desperate for this Savior, Prince of Peace.
It is important to distinguish between the two experiences of this season and to acknowledge they are at odds with each other. While the former can bring joy, delight, and some form of happiness, it is at best illusive and unreliable, at worst, seductive and demonic. Consumerism often functions as a “false religion” in this country where the “economy” is often treated as a god. This consumerist religion works to seduce us into idolatry—the worship of “things” and simultaneously commodifies each one of us. We, each one of us, is something to be “sold” in some way shape or form. Think of how valuable our “personal data” has become to so many corporations and other entities.
In his provocative book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, first printed in 1981, and revised and reprinted twice since then, most recently in 2006, Jesuit Priest and Theologian John Kavanaugh makes the following observation about consumerism’s effect on each of us and on our society:
“Our being is in having. Our happiness is said to be in possessing more. Our drive to consume, bolstered by an economics of infinite growth, becomes addictive: it moves from manipulated need to the promise of joy in things, to broken promises and frustrated expectations, to guilt and greater need for buying. Property is no longer instrumental to our lives; it is the final judge of our merit” (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, p. 110).
As people of faith we recognize, or at least should recognize, that there is no salvation in “having.” Our salvation is found in Jesus Christ who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” This holy season of Advent invites us to welcome him once more into our world and into our hearts and lives.
O Come, O come Emmanuel…
May God bless you and keep you during this holy time.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jerse