I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that the annual Christmas ad campaigns have begun in earnest. My husband and I record a lot of our shows so that we can fast forward past all the commercials, but football games are the exception to the rule. On Sundays, I am forced to watch the glut of ads that are bloating the airways with their claims of “New! More! Bigger! Better! Faster!” These ads are bright and sparkly invitations into a fantasy world where finding a luxury car with a huge bow on top parked in your driveway on Christmas morning is not only possible but deserved. Ad-makers promise a Wonderland of all the things they believe will make our holidays merry and bright, while actually emptying them of any deeper meaning. In fact, that’s the one thing these ads don’t promise—“deeper.”
The season of Advent is approaching and along with it the challenge for people of faith to find a depth of meaning while still tending to all of the tasks that sustain our Christmas traditions and bring joy to our families—shopping, baking, sending greetings to loved ones far and wide, participating in holiday festivities, the works. But just like shallow advertising, these activities can also drain our holidays of meaning if we let them.
I’m reminded of an experience I had years ago that might speak to this issue. My husband and I were in Tucson visiting our son at the University of Arizona and decided to go on an outing to Kartchner Caverns. The trip took us through the dry and barren hills of the Sonoran Desert, miles and miles of not much to look at other than tumbleweeds and cactus. As we approached the visitor center, it was more of the same. I was having a hard time imagining that anything beautiful could exist underneath this arid landscape. Then our tour guide led us toward a large metal doorway set into the base of a hill. This doorway opened into a tunnel that vacuumed the particles from our clothing and protected the cave’s temperature. At the far end of the tunnel was another air-locked door, which, when opened, was a lot like falling down the rabbit hole. We had entered into a wonderland of stalactites, stalagmites, glowing formations that resembled waterfalls, thrones, wavy bacon growing from the ceilings and even the Madonna. It was truly magical and awe-inspiring. I found myself entering into an attitude of prayer without forming an intention to do so. I was surrounded by Mystery. This was confirmed when the guide, a retired science teacher, pointed out some small formations that looked like coral growing outward from the cavern walls. “Most cave formations are caused by the dripping of water from the limestone ceilings. In other words, the main force working to create them is gravity. Yet these particular formations have tentacles that grow outward and upward. Scientists have no idea how this happens.” Mystery. Something that the most brilliant scientific minds could not explain. It gave me goose bumps.
So what does this story have to do with Advent? Perhaps it is this. Beneath the barren surface of our society’s focus on a Christmas that is all about materialism and devoid of any deeper meaning, there is a door. Compared to the surrounding landscape, it’s not a very big door, and you really have to look for it. But when you enter it, you find what lies underneath it all, a chamber of mystery and wonder, the story of the Christ child, sent to bring light to darkness and love to all humankind. And once you’ve found it, there are portals everywhere, even in department stores and on busy city streets. You just have to go deeper. You can see beauty and mystery in the kindness of strangers, bell ringers on cold street corners, the shining faces around your holiday table, the hug of a child, the music on the wind singing comfort and joy. Every Christmas chore is transformed into a sacred task, the practice of sharing the light and love with everyone you meet. No longer does Christmas have to be about more, bigger and better, just about deeper. Find the door to the Mystery and enter in.