Standing in line at Starbucks recently, my gaze caught something out of place: A colorful package emblazoned with the words “Advent Calendar.”
I had to stop and stare. Starbucks acknowledging Advent? At first I thought this display might be a mistake; perhaps a customer had left something in the store.
But it wasn’t. It was true: Starbucks and Advent. Together.
Though Starbucks views Advent as a way to make money, I didn’t sip my dark roast entirely irritated by the commercial appropriation. Supposing the package inspired even one person to drop “Advent” into Google, I drew consolation from what this pilgrim, even if non-Christian, might find.
The season of Advent invites us to rethink the do-it-yourself culture that dominates American life. Our desktop has become an office park. Apps and websites encourage us to do our own taxes, diagnose our own illnesses, control our investments, determine our medications (have you asked your doctor about . . .) and do all kinds of things we once outsourced to experts or didn’t worry about at all.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A DIY spirit can save time and money, enhance education and eliminate barriers to the marketplace.
At the same time, this DIY culture, unchecked, can turn us too inward, clandestinely nurturing the belief that individuals have no need to go beyond themselves to find the truth of things. This mentality not only creates undue anxiety as people take on more tasks for which they are unprepared or unqualified; it closes us off to important conversations, the riches of community, and an honest examination of our own limitations.
Advent invites us to reverse course and take a break from this WebMD'd, TurboTaxed world. Advent, put another way, encourages Catholics to affirm the opposite of a recent political slogan: We are not the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are not the ones who can deliver solutions to our most fundamental problems.
It is we, rather, who are the problem. During Advent, Catholics recognize that human nature itself needs fixing. And not through programs or policies, apps or smart phones, or that most cherished of political ointments, more funding.
Rather, for Catholics, Advent draws attention to the saving powers of something – really, Someone – who is outside of time and space and yet, to borrow from St. Augustine, is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
The season of Advent also reintroduces a word that for many today may be drained of meaning: hope. Wounded by plane crashes and terrorism, disease and drought, humankind hobbles toward the end of 2014. In talk of quarantines and epidemics, there’s an apocalyptic vibe. Physical and moral evils strain armies, doctors, citizens, and leaders.
Questions arise: Are human beings capable of genuine peace and lasting stability? Is the image of an ISIS throat-slasher the portent of additional wars?
In the shadow of these worst-case scenarios, Advent offers a radical message of optimism. Catholics believe the future can be better than the past, because we believe God’s grace remains at work in the human story. In the Christian account of history, evil never has the last say. As the Gospel of John eloquently put it, the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Light, optimism, hope, joy: This is the message of Advent. May it be a reality for you.