In a world filled with consumerism, materialism, and entitlement, do we really live the totality of our lives with a deep sense of gratitude? Do we spend time each and every day with the Lord in grateful contemplation? The Roman phil-osopher Cicero spoke of gratitude as not simply what we owe, but the way in which we should live. From his perspective, gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. In other words, a virtuous life is enveloped in how we live with a grateful heart. True gratitude keeps our eyes focused on the giver — God himself. God is ultimately the giver of all things. All belongs to God. All is gift.
This virtue of gratitude naturally flows from deep personal intimacy with Christ. It is far more than mere thankfulness. All that we have that is good has God’s stamp on it and is owned by God to be used in a God-given way. We will never be afraid of not having enough if we truly believe that, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Psalm 23).
The holiday season is on the near horizon. Many Americans will be in constant preparation mode over the next month-and-a-half. Each holiday is an opportunity to live gratefully. Thanksgiving Day is next week, a time to enjoy family gatherings, the presence of loved ones who have come home for a few days, and the rich food and drink that accompany this wonderful day. Each of us must reflect upon our many blessings, the great abundance that brings such richness to our lives, and the One who provides it all. A grateful heart always returns to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving, and never takes God’s generosity for granted.
Four weeks later, for most people, is the celebration of Christmas — Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, who became poor and humble to come among us. This celebration also affords us the opportunity to reflect upon our many blessings, the great abundance which brings such richness to our lives, and the One who has never been outdone in generosity.
But there is an important period of time in between these two celebrations called Advent. This season seems to get lost in a culture that exhibits the sights and sounds of Christmas, even prior to Thanksgiving, and is saturated with one of the greatest temptations of all, materialism. “Black Friday” is the epitome of this display of the saturation of materialism.
In a way, the season of Advent shines like the first moon on a cold, dark night. For many people it is barely noticeable. There is no waiting or anticipation for the moon to become full and its light to brighten the wintry sky. The progression from a first moon to a full moon goes unnoticed, much like the season of Advent.
How can we really celebrate the truest and deepest meaning of Christmas if we have not celebrated Advent? Can there be a real celebration of Christmas without a period of waiting, a period of joyful expectation, a period of grateful contemplation whereby the Lord prepares our hearts to receive God’s greatest gift to humanity anew?
Thomas Merton wrote, “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything he has given us. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference” (Thomas Merton: Thoughts in Solitude; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958).
For a deeper meaning of Christmas to penetrate our longing hearts, time must be spent in preparation beyond the shopping, beyond the pre-Christmas parties, and beyond the tempting hustle and bustle of December. We must fight the battle with the local shopping centers or the Internet vendors. Perhaps the best way to approach the battle is to retreat, to withdraw into the quiet recognition of the “Love of God in everything,” so that there can be an “awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God.”
The season of Advent, celebrated quietly in gratitude, contemplating our Savior coming into a sinful world will transform us in ways we cannot imagine. Our anticipation of our Savior’s return in glory will manifest itself through our outward expressions of love as we welcome Christ in the stranger, the poor, the unloved, and the hopeless.
Most people sense a yearning to recover the basic meaning of Christmas. This yearning will be satisfied when we make a conscious choice to not allow an excessive consumerism mentality, one that measures love by purchases and limits celebration to spending, to become our focus. As Pope Francis noted in a homily, “If money and material things become the center of our lives, they seize us and make us slaves. Our life must be centered on what is essential, Jesus Christ. Everything else is secondary.”
May we all celebrate this Advent season as the church invites us, with great joy and thankfulness. In doing so, we will experience anew a deep sense of gratitude for the real presence of Christ among us, the profound mystery we call Christmas.
Advent peace and love to all.