"On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me." Tony Bennett's voice wove its subtle magic throughout the shopping mall. "How appropriate," I thought, as I watched the shoppers scurry from store to s tore. The advertisements promised "just the right gifts at just the right price," allowing us to "give like Santa and save like Scrooge."

As I listened, I was struck with how we have turned Christmas around—not so much by commercializing the season, but through something deeper. Our McWorld of drive-through expectations has replaced patient waiting, followed by heartfelt joyous celebration, with the idolatry of instant gratification. This is poignantly evident in the fusillade of renditions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to which we are subjected this time of year.

The ancient Western church devised a rhythmic cycle for the celebration of Christ's incarnation. At the center was Advent, the 20-plus days beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. By fasting and abstaining from public festivities, Christians were to prepare for the holy day by being drawn into the sense of longing for Messiah's coming felt by generations of God's faithful people.

This heightened sense of anticipation would, in turn, give way to overwhelming joy and festive celebration when Christmas Day finally came. Only then followed the 12 days of Christmas, climaxing on January 6 with Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi.

As members of the fast-food generation, we have become so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. Whereas our forebears enjoined fasting and reflection, we try to enjoy days filled with more Christmas festivities than we can endure. Christmas has displaced Advent on our calendars.

But our bypassing ...

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