Let the Grinches mutter about the commercialization of Christmas. I’ll take it (though not uncritically) as a tribute to Christ that society’s great season of giving is the feast of his birth.

I do, however, grieve for the eclipse of Advent — because the Church’s preparation for Christmas has certainly been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding Christmas shopping season. Advent is a season we must recover, even if it takes heroic effort. 

In Advent the liturgy bids us to relive the period of expectation when the world awaited a Savior. We hear the words of the prophets, and we make them our own. The prophets longed for the conditions that Israel could only enjoy upon faithful fulfillment of the covenant. Instead, the people fell repeatedly into sin, and so they lost the privileges God had given them: prosperity and happiness in a land flowing with milk and honey. The prophets ached for a deliverer. 

With the birth of Jesus came the fulfillment of all the holy desires of all those many centuries. That’s the joy we mark in Christmas, but it’s difficult for us to experience the joy unless we undergo the longing.

That’s why the Church leads us first through a season not of shopping, but of longing. 

It’s good for us, at least once a year, to recall the pain and poverty of a world without Christ. For centuries, we have lived in a society shaped by Christian assumptions — Christian notions of right and wrong, decency, of justice, and of human dignity. Now, as the world forgets Christ, all these natural benefits of his advent are vanishing.

In post-Christian states, we have seen human dignity fade to nonexistence, followed soon by human rights, beginning with the right to life. In a post-Christian world, we have seen ethnic identities emerging anew — and violently — to wage brutal separatist wars against their closest cousins. The world is rapidly losing any sense of the transnational family Christ came to inaugurate, the kingdom where Israel and the Gentiles can live together in peace.

If we want to hold fast to the good things that came with Jesus, then we must first keep a lively remembrance of the difference he made — the difference Christmas made. Advent calls us out of our cultural complacency. The Church echoes the prophets who say, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1), that is, those who have taken God’s extraordinary gifts for granted.

If we are tempted to grumble about a culture that has forgotten Christ, then perhaps we are beginning to sense the longing of the prophets.

Christ has come, and yet we await him anew. He has saved us, and yet we still await a day when “he will wipe away every tear … and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more” (Revelation 21:4). Christ has come, and he continues to come to us in the Eucharist. But he will come again, at the consummation of history. For this day, even the souls of the just in heaven cry out, “How long?” as did the ancient prophets (see Revelation 6:10).