I feel the ground rumble as the panic-stricken advertisers stampede. Someone just told them we should rescue Advent from its kidnappers and let it roam all year. Advent was meant to be a season of prayer and fasting, with the look and feel of Lent. The shopping malls would open late and close early. We would slow down and dwell in Christ. Activists would join contemplatives in the ancient disciplines of stillness, meditation and contemplation — all of which would kindle a cool fire enflamed with resolve, conviction, compassion, and contentment. We’d be peaceful enthusiasts, free from the allure of gaudy knick-knacks forged from the fossils’ ooze.
Thus the advertisers’ dread: Our sputtering economy will collapse; our malls will mutate into eerie ghost villages forever replaying Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” The advertisers bank on the kidnapping, with 25 to 40 percent of their sales hinging on a winter-time spending spree — so re-fasten the locks on the kidnap victim’s cage and form triage units for pepper spray sufferers. We feel for them, of course, but these are the days of collateral damage.
But deceleration is inevitable. We face a choice: Will we volunteer for a resurgent, spirit-enriching slow down or will we stumble into the Hobbesian mire? Our lubricant is running dry. Oil greases our entire economy. It’s the building block for the debris littering my desk, including my plastic fork and my salad’s polystyrene cup. We sweat oil – and indications are it will keep dripping off our nose: The International Energy Agency released a gloomy report showing that world-wide fuel demands “rebounded by a remarkable 5% in 2010, pushing CO2 emissions to a new high.” More developing countries demand oil as they leap into industrialization, erasing chances of significant price declines as the resource dries up. Even worse, the window for effective implementation of sound climate-change policy may soon slam shut: average global temperatures may rise by six degrees centigrade or more – far above the safer, agreed-upon goal of a 3.5-degree increase. A dim ray of hope sneaks in from a paper in Science suggesting the Earth is more resilient, but its writers warn against complacency. Andreas Schmitter, the lead author, said this: “Our study implies that we still have time to prevent (serious effects) from happening, if we make a concerted effort to change course soon” (emphasis added).
So which will it be? Advent’s cool fire or the searing explosion from the collision of our paramount issues?
The discipline of stillness is the fire’s hearth. The shopping season’s noise fades and we catch whispers of the Life behind all life, the one whom Augustine described as the “Absolute Is.” We’ll resonate with God’s assurance to the psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We slowly understand that Madison Avenue’s roar has veiled the truly significant; the ooze’s trinkets lure us from the real treasure.
Meditation — the Hebrew word means “mumbling” or “muttering” — is the hearth’s log. The ancients literally spoke under their breath when they repeated Psalm 1:2: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night,” or Psalm 119:15: “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” They muttered God’s instructions; they mumbled over God’s works (Psalm 143:5); they murmured over God’s wonders (Psalm 119:27). Mutterers strolled between synagogues instead of screaming between shopping malls.
And then comes the fire itself: God meets us in contemplation’s “gaze of faith” and “silent love.” One Oriental Orthodox thinker describes contemplation as “the soul’s inward vision and the heart’s simple repose in God.” John of the Cross portrayed it this way: “The difference (between meditation and contemplation) … is like the difference between working, and enjoyment of the fruit of our work; between receiving the gift, and profiting by it; between the toil of traveling and the rest of our journey’s end.” We marinate in the Holy Spirit and emerge with Christ’s convictions and personality. He knew when to be firm and when to be soft. He healed lepers and railed against the Pharisees; he blessed Peter and called him Satan; he loved the rich young ruler and told him to give away all his money.
In his sobering book, Eaarth, Bill McKibben convincingly argues that we’ve already exhausted ourselves: The weather is already changing; our frenetic, oil-guzzling culture has already gobbled up entire species as it stumbles in the mire’s fringe. We must slow down. And there lies the opening: The world begs for an Advent people – a people willing to decelerate, soak in Christ, grasp his convictions and his nature, and bring his character into a hot, crowded, energy-starved world boiling in a noxious alchemy of uncompromising gridlock and indecisiveness.
So throw in the kindling and watch the cool fire glow. Free the original Advent from its cage. We can warm ourselves in its blaze and bring that warmth to the shopping malls. Who knows? We may even calm a hyperventilating advertiser.