Some scholars who specialize in studying ancient religions say that to understand the spiritual practices of a people it’s necessary to know whether they believed that their gods were beings of the heavens or of the earth. This information helps explain the derivation of their images and icons – sun, moon, stars and comets versus mountains, rivers, thunder and lightning, and fire. It also helps clarify their observances of cycles in time, such as the seasons. For example, some early peoples measured time by the cycles of the sun and moon, while others defined time in terms of changes in vegetation and animal behavior. You could say the defining factor is whether they looked up to the heavens or down to the earth to connect with a spiritual dimension of existence.
What about us? Where do we derive our inspiration? What animates us – earthly things or things of heaven? It seems we should be able to draw a clear line between the two, but in the countdown to Christmas it’s far too easy to slip over that line. Of course we know that Jesus is the Reason for the Season, and that the Messiah comes into the world in the person of the Christ Child born in Bethlehem. But we also know in our heart of hearts that we love to receive gifts as well as give them. If we were completely truthful with ourselves, we’d have to admit that there are things we hope for as much as Ralphie Parker coveted the Red Ryder BB gun in the classic Christmas movie. We’re creatures of the earth, after all, and earthly things hold an inherent appeal for us.
Jesus spoke to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verses 19-21)
The key sentence, often passed over, is the last one. Where we invest ourselves – our time, energy, affection, and financial resources – is where our hearts will follow. If we spend every waking moment laboring to advance our career, then our heart will belong to that career. If we invest as much of our financial resources as we can possibly manage, sacrificing or deferring other things, in order to visit a particular place or acquire a particular car or other type of property, then our heart will belong to that possession.
What’s especially telling is where we choose to invest our time where there are competing possibilities. When two or more options are mutually exclusive, how we decide between or among them reveals our core values: what we consider good and worthwhile and desirable. The season before Christmas presents many such choices, because there is never enough time, not to mention money, to do everything.
As we end the contemplative season of Advent and move into the Twelve Days of Christmas, it’s a good time to assess our values and priorities, and commit to realigning them with the heavenly treasures that the coming of the Christ Child makes possible.
Questions for Reflection
1. Think about some of the choices you have made through this season – which gifts to buy and not buy, which events to attend and forego, etc. Which of your core values were revealed by each of those choices?
2. What are two measures you can take to shift your focus away from earthly things and toward heavenly things?
In 2017 the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 24. Therefore the fourth week of Advent is shortened to a single day, because the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas begins after sundown on Christmas Eve.