I walked through a local store just days after Halloween and heard "Joy to the World" floating softly from the speakers. The lyrics about hope and preparing our hearts melted like snowflakes on warm October sidewalks, amid the heated rush toward sale signs and busy employees wearing Santa hats. I paused before the beauty of that Advent song juxtaposed against the chaos of holiday shopping, and it struck me that there is now only one formidable religious Friday in our culture.
I recently wrote a book about my search for joy. It was a narrative adventure that began with the stark realization that my life and the lives of the people I know seemed curiously void of transcendental moments. One of the many truths that I stumbled over on my journey was how profoundly many of us are burdened by our obsession to consume: the newest car, the latest technology or the brightest flat-screen television. Our spiritual lives are joyless. We can no longer differentiate between wants and needs, because we have unseated our trust in a nomadic God and replaced him with a new American "deity."
The nauseating political commercials of early fall have given way to a tsunami of advertisements celebrating our most potent and intentional religious practice in America. Our Novembers now bring us a Friday carnival of greed, debt, and self-serving emptiness so dark and ominous that its shadow darkens the Story of God's arrival among us and His sacrificial movement toward the Friday that would be the most sacred day of the Christian calendar. Advent, which marks the beginning of our journey toward the observance of Good Friday, has been obscured by the shopping "holiday" of Black Friday. Our most fanatical religion is one powered not by self-sacrifice, loving our neighbors, and accepting responsibility, but by the blaring noise and bright lights of advertising's empty promises. The sheer dominance of Black Friday on our culture has crowned Consumerism as the most prominent faith in America and there are plenty of casualties to prove it.
I remember visiting Nashville for Thanksgiving in 2008, headed to the greenway for a late morning run. The trailhead was situated near a large store, and I was slowed by anxious shoppers who cruised the lot to find a place to park. I was in the car listening to the news when the story broke about the horrific events much earlier that morning hundreds of miles away in New York.
Two thousand Long Island shoppers gathered outside of a local Wal-Mart chanting for the employees to open the doors. When the time arrived, the crowd rushed the store, trampling an employee to death and injuring several others (including a pregnant woman). Police remarked that shoppers feverishly continued to bump into and climb around them while rescuers desperately attempted to administer CPR to the dying man.
Every time I consider that horrible tragedy, it leaves me feeling sick -- and it makes me question my own values. In the years since, I cannot bear to participate in that day's rush for products. One human life traded for a Black Friday deal.
For those of us who believe in the nomadic God who climbed into human skin and walked among us, Good Friday represents the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. It is the great antithesis to this Black Friday that has us scurrying about, spending money we do not have, fighting for places in line, armed and ready to brave the biggest crowds for the most enticing buy. In short, this is the most self-serving day of joyless consumption the world has ever known.
On Good Friday, we discover the culmination of what Jesus calls real-life or life to the fullest. Jesus is talking about a life of joy -- to the whole world, right here and right now -- joy that this religion of incessant consumerism cannot afford. Black Friday has us running for a low cost purchase, but Good Friday reminds us the fulfillment and joy of living in the eternal presence of God will cost us everything. The lights of Advent point us toward a God who is nailed to a cross crying out, "Dad, why have you forsaken me?" And in that moment, we learn that nothing, not even our physical lives, takes precedence over the everlasting. On that dark and lonely Friday, Jesus casts his vision of the most subversive revolution in the history of the world. This idea that love is the act of sacrificing our own self-interests -- even our own lives -- with the agenda that this unconditional love and grace will be moved forward one person, one light at time.
The deficit of joy in our culture is illustrated clearly in this tale of two Fridays. Don't get me wrong, I am going to take advantage of a sale or two this holiday season as I go out shopping for my family. But as the dark celebration of American consumerism once again draws near, and the lights, sounds and meditations of Advent are discarded like a full-priced item on a Black Friday sale rack, the question we need to ask of ourselves is: Which religious Friday are we going to celebrate this season?
Matt Litton is the author of 'Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy.' A writer, educator, and speaker, he is also author of 'The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives Through the Power of Story' and has written articles on faith and culture for numerous national publications. Matt lives with his wife, Kristy, and four children in Cincinnati, Ohio.