Today’s Gospel reading portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus, as if she might fit in well with our contemporary celebration of the Christmas season. The Gospel says that she “traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah” in order to visit her cousin Elizabeth. (Lk. 1:39) I can imagine Mary driving frantically in the family’s leased luxury SUV trying to get from soccer practice and yoga to her in-laws house for the holidays. Perhaps, this is why she is portrayed in paintings and statuary as looking somewhat melancholy.
Haste has become the personality of the Christmas season. People hasten to track down bargains at the shopping malls. Drivers make haste on highways and neighborhood streets. Householders rush to make their homes ready to greet holiday guests. Children wish that they could hasten the coming of Christmas morning.
At this time of year, the normally hectic pace of life in the United States becomes frenzied, even furious. The panicked pace of the Christmas season has the sorts of consequences that are associated typically with excessive speed. The recklessness of drivers causes a spike in traffic accidents during the holidays. A recent medical research project indicates that the increased stress of the holidays leads to a seasonal increase in heart attacks and strokes. The turmoil of obtaining sufficient and impressive Christmas gifts interferes with one’s close relationships and, even more tragically, with one’s relationship with God.
This is the time of year when almost everyone finds themselves too busy to attend to all the familial and social commitments that vie for space on the calendar. Spouses are too busy to spend time alone with one another. Parents are too busy to enjoy their children’s company. Children are too distracted to appreciate their parents. Neighbors are relegated to the status usually accorded to one’s landscape plants. Prayer also, of course, falls to the wayside.
Everyone loves to lament this overly busy state of affairs in which a holiday that proclaims peace produces the opposite of peace. Most of us have plausible excuses for our distracted living, relating, and driving. We take refuge in the fact that we feel compelled by societal expectations to observe the Christmas holidays in the most harried, materialistic, and self-destructive ways imaginable. We feign regret over the fact that we are too busy to have attentive conversations with family and friends; we whine wistfully about the fact that we are too busy to spend adequate time in daily prayer.
Everyone uses these sorts of excuses mentioned above and everyone accepts these sorts of excuses as valid. I am of the opinion, however, that being “too busy” is neither an excuse nor valid. Why is it that we seem to have plenty of time for shopping, partying, and over-indulging but do not have sufficient time for daily prayer? I propose that it is because we choose to accomplish what is really important to us. The frantic pace of the Christmas season is not an unavoidable obligation imposed by a technological society; rather, it is how we prefer to live.
Hastily driving, shopping, eating, and drinking are not the causes of our inability to attend to our loved ones, our friends, and God. I think that our choices about our use of time works in the direction opposite of what we think and claim. I think that it is our inability and unwillingness to attend to our loved ones, friends, and God that leads to the frantic pace of the holidays. The added activities of the holiday season are neither a cause nor an excuse; they are a symptom. Our hasty, harried, and fraught holiday celebrations are a symptom of our belief that ultimate salvation is attained through our own activities.
Shopping, hurrying, and consuming are the activities to which we look to find salvation. The motivation for the holiday rush is the deeply held belief that if we could only find the right gifts to give and receive, if we could only get all of our errands accomplished, if only we could satisfy all our appetites, then we would be truly happy and truly at peace. Holiday haste is the symptom of our society’s idolatry. We believe that the eternal reign of peace will be the result of our own actions; as a consequence, we remain insanely pre-occupied with the pursuit of an unattainable goal.
There is a Reign of Peace to be enjoyed. There is a Prince of Peace who will bring salvation. There is rest for wearied souls. Depending on how one chooses to see it, however, it is either fortunate or unfortunate that the peace we seek is not of our own making.
Mary traveled in haste, but not to do, accomplish, obtain, or consume anything. Mary traveled in haste to spend time with a relative.
If you find that you are too busy during this Christmas season to attend to the people closest to you, I would like to suggest that the problem is not that you are too busy. I would like to suggest that the problem is that you choose to be busy as an alternative to spending time with the people closest to you.
Further, the solution to the problem is not to be found in prioritizing or out-sourcing or maximizing opportunities and resources. The solution to our society’s inability and unwillingness to give sufficient attention to God and neighbor is to abandon the idolatry that values things above persons.
The conversation between Mary and Elizabeth is filled with praise for God’s graciousness. There are also a few things noticeably absent from their conversation. Neither woman complained about being overwhelmed, despite the fact that both of them faced conditions that were quite overwhelming. Neither woman complained about being too busy. Our lives can be reflections of the peace enjoyed by Mary and Elizabeth, if we choose to accept God’s peace.
The busy pace of the holiday season and the overwhelming demands on our time have a simple solution. The solution to the lack of peace in our lives is to avoid the idolatry of expecting our own actions to bring us salvation.