O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, who proceeded from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other and ordering all things powerfully and gently: come to teach us the way of prudence.
O Holy Wisdom,
how I long for you!
You are the Word of Life
whispered by the Divine Presence.
With fierce tenderness
you reach to touch the ends of the galaxy
and the edges of the universe,
inviting all creation to flourish.
Come, Holy Wisdom,
show us wisdom’s ways.
December 17, and eight more shopping days until Christmas. It is futile to pretend that our religious world and our commercial culture are not intimately joined (probably much more stably than most marriages). As Leigh Eric Schmidt has shown in his book Consumer Rites, religious people embraced and shaped the emerging consumer culture, their high holy days providing cultural legitimization and authorization for consumption. This is particularly true for Christmas. Christmas gift-giving today is worth billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. Continuing “lament over the blitz and glitz of Christmas” is now a Christmas tradition itself because it too has been subsumed under commercialization—witness the irony of the slogan “Put Christ Back into Christmas” on a variety of commodities from bumper stickers to sweatshirts. At the same time, other “discordant systems of meaning” have become visible around Christmas, embodied, for example, in holiday crisis hotlines, the commercialization of Kwaanza, menorahs in public places, and holiday escapes to the Caribbean, to name but a few.
No wonder then, that Christmas renders visible deep ambiguities in our culture: tensions between “asceticism and indulgence, simplicity and affluence, piety and spectacle, religion and consumerism, Christ and culture.” Women live out these ambiguities in particular ways. They, after all, are the ones who orchestrate and choreograph much of the domesticity of Christmas. They are responsible for much of the nurturance of relationships at Christmas, from hosting Christmas parties to writing cards to family and friends to Christmas gift-giving (and the attendant labor of choosing, buying, wrapping, decorating, and often, transporting or sending the gifts). Moreover, consumer research has shown that in America, women are not only the primary shoppers, they also do the majority of holiday shopping. Women actually start shopping for the holidays earlier than men, but finish just as late. Women also bear most of the burden of other additional holiday preparations: from baking the cookies to getting the kids ready (practicing holiday songs for school concerts, decorating the Christmas tree with children, and making sure that that cooperation harms neither the ornaments nor the children, etc.). The holiday season, then, makes women “nothing if not extremely busy.”
Can the O-Antiphons be anything but antithetical to these activities, yet one more insistence that Christ be put back into Christmas? The O-Antiphons seek to shape our desire toward that midnight hour between the 24th and the 25th of December when, two millennia ago, God was born in human form. One would think that the desire to witness anew God becoming human in our midst would not need to be awakened, that this desire is, indeed, the deepest longing of our whole existence. The O-Antiphons would then simply call our attention to and speak this deepest longing. As the first of the O-Antiphons puts it: How I long for you, Holy Wisdom, show us wisdom’s ways! Calling on Wisdom, that ancient feminine embodiment of the Divine Presence, could be a particularly compelling vocative for women to begin to speak their desires and deepest longings. “Come, Holy Wisdom,” is, however, by no means the only vocative we hear during this season. In fact, long before the O-Antiphons ever have a chance to shape our desires towards Holy Wisdom, desires have already been constructed for us in myriad ways that even the most astute of us find hard to acknowledge. And the well-meaning Advent sermons that challenge us to resist conspicuous consumption seem to assume that the problem arises at the moment of decision, when we come face to face with a particularly seductive product: to consume or to resist consuming. In reality (and it is the reality particularly of women’s lives in these days before Christmas), the problem emerges much, much earlier. The crucial moment, I would argue, is the construction of our desires, which—if effective—actually disables us from the very choice that many Advent sermons invite us to make. We are beyond choice at the point identified in these Advent sermons, since long before we are confronted with a product, our desires have already been shaped in ways that make that product seem vital to our well-being and flourishing.
Imagine, then, a product such as the following in the peculiar temple of (women’s) desires that is Bed Bath & Beyond. This company, with over five hundred “superstores” nationwide, prides itself on “a constantly evolving shopping environment that has proven to be both fun and exciting for customers,” especially women one might assume from the name of the chain. At Bed Bath & Beyond, the O-Antiphon for December 17 meets its match when it comes to voicing desire. Holy Wisdom, meet the Luminous Ledges Relaxation Fountain! The latter comes with its own construction of women’s desires, and the whispering of its own words of life: “Take a break from everyday stress with this relaxing fountain. You’ll create a tranquil and soothing atmosphere in any room you place it. The sounds of bubbling water will bring you the peace of mind you seek.” It surely helps that the fountain promises “adjustable flow settings,” is perfect “for home and office,” and assembles in minutes. Eight days before Christmas, a “relaxation fountain” for women will not so much evoke conspicuous consumption as sheer survival.
But what to do with these promises of flourishing? Do I turn to Holy Wisdom and away from the promises of Bed Bath & Beyond? Do I make my own the “piety of protest” (Schmidt) that calls me to resist the lures of Christmas advertising? Or might I just find Holy Wisdom in the soothing tranquility of the Luminous Ledges Relaxation Fountain? There are six more O-Antiphons and seven more shopping days to ponder these questions.