An Advent Fast
Another election is behind us. “And there was much rejoicing.” American election campaigns have evolved into marathons that test the endurance of both candidates and voters. If not everyone is happy with the outcome, everyone at least is happy when they are over. The candidates spend months on the road giving speeches, working the crowds, and raising money. We as voters only have to watch, listen, and make up our minds. That ought to be easy enough, but we still find the process a burden. In my experience, this campaign was no worse than others. Of course, it had its share of negativity, mendacity, and absurdity, but when people complain about our ugly elections, I remember political scientist Samuel Popkin’s observation: if American politics are vulgar it is because Americans are vulgar. Our politicians are no fools. We might tell them that we want a modern-day version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but they know that we would not watch the Lincoln-Douglas debates even if they came in an iPhone app. They also know what actually makes us pay attention, what gets us excited, and what kinds of things we remember. Campaigns are crass, ugly, and loud, because we respond to them when they are that way.
But now the campaigns are finally silent, and just in time, because the Christmas noise is well underway. A few radio stations start playing Christmas music as early as November 1, but our holiday observances really get started every year when Americans finish giving thanks for all the blessings in their lives just in time to rush off and go shopping. Almost no one is happy that the Christmas season gets started so early. This year, stores like Target and Wal-Mart were widely criticized for launching their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Thursday, but the stores were as full as ever and labor union protests against retailers had little impact. I am tempted to paraphrase Popkin: if Christmas is vulgar, it is because Christians are vulgar. If Christmas is not what it should be, maybe we should stop blaming capitalists, or the “War on Christmas,” or whomever. If there is something wrong with Christmas, perhaps the fault is our own.
The time of year called “the Christmas season” is also known as Advent. Advent was once a time of repentance and fasting, a season of preparation during which we simplified our lives and awaited the coming of the Lord. It has since become a time of excess and consumption. We overeat, overspend, and generally overdo it. But if we no longer fast from food, there are other fasts we might undertake. In “Thinking about Thinking,” Harold K. Bush proposes a digital fast. For a couple of days each week, shut the computer off and leave the smartphone behind. Give your brain a rest from electronic stimulation. And after reading Jennifer Forness’s reflections on the absence of silence in contemporary music (“Turn That Stuff Down”), I have decided that this Advent I need a noise fast. Noise, like many other kinds of physical stimulation, is addictive. We surround ourselves with artificial noise: music constantly in the background, television news and sports that we mostly ignore anyway, and the constant beeping and buzzing of various gadgets.
If we can turn down the noise, we might be able to hear something much more important. Without all the artificial noise, we will be better able to hear the real sounds created by people and places near and dear to us. As Josef Pieper wrote in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, “only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.” When we are silent, we can experience the world and God’s presence in it. So many things come and go noisily, hurling themselves at our senses and disappearing as soon as the next one pushes them aside. But at the Nativity, God the Eternal comes into our world as God the Incarnate and comes to us as a child born in the silence of night. During Advent, we wait and listen for this God.