The undivided truth that unites all Christians is Jesus Christ. It is because of Jesus Christ — and only because of Him — that Christians can say there is more that unites us than divides us. But a modern truth affecting all people who hold religious values in general is the power and increasing presence of the secular, which is leaving less room for the sacred and causing a loss of the transcendent.
For Christians during the Advent season, in preparation for the solemn celebration of Christmas, we need to recognize and resist the persuasiveness of secularism, whose first disciple is materialism. Of course, ’tis the season to be jolly, but be joyful for the right reason.
Nothing tempts and teases a yearning for the material more than the activities of December. At this time of year we are seized upon by marketers and merchants of every stripe who encourage us to overindulge in their services and products. Too often the season of Christmas is consumed by a spirit of purchase, sometimes driven by a desire to acquire more and then want more still, often without regard for those who have less. It is materialism at its worst.
The tug of war between the sacred and the secular is real and not going away. That means keeping Christ in Christmas is a more serious challenge then ever before. Cardinal Wuerl described the changing landscape this way: “It is as if a tsunami of secular influence has swept across the cultural landscape.”
So what is a Christian to do? How can we defend ourselves against the overbearing forces of secularism? Some have suggested that, when all else fails, try prayer. I would put it more strongly: the power of prayer should be our first — not last — defence.
Prayer, in whatever manner best suits the believer, is an indispensable ingredient in every formula to counteract secularism. Prayer awakens the spirit and shields the heart from the often blind and misdirected desires that can interfere with our celebration of Christmas. Prayer is a common-sense practice to help free believers from the powerful grip of the secular world.
Meditation can be an effective form of prayer. Start by reading both accounts of the infancy narratives found in the beginning chapters of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Both texts are rich and timely resources.
Read them slowly and deliberately, with generous pauses along the way. And repeat the practice throughout the Advent season. With each reading, expect to encounter something new to enrich your meditative prayer. Another appropriate Advent reading is the recent apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium.
It abounds with the spirit of love, generosity and compassion that should be at the heart of Advent.
Society needs a counterbalance to the allure of consumerism. Perhaps prayer could lead to the realization that, instead of making another purchase for ourselves or to please a loved one or acquaintance, it would be better to contribute to a group home, a seniors’ residence, a poor family or a homeless person. The options are limitless.
The type of giving that most contradicts and undermines the secular spirit is giving of our time and talents to serve those less fortunate than us. Rather than just give something, do something for someone in need. Such acts of giving create new stepping stones of grace both for the giver and the recipient.
We can make this Advent season and Christmas celebration memorable for ourselves and others if we allow the sacred to guide and direct us along the way. We should all do our utmost to keep Christ in Christmas.
(Fr. Damian MacPherson, SA, is Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs, Archdiocese of Toronto.)