My basil plants have not yet gone to bud. Not a snowflake in sight. And first frost is still well beyond the meteorological horizon. It’s the 24th week in Ordinary Time and, though September is half over, I like to think of this as the 7th week of August with some summery days still ahead of us.

Retailers are on a different page and have a different angle on time. They are typically at least one or two chapters ahead. The grand prize for rushing the season, however, may go to a local Lowe’s (inset photo) where shoppers are greeted by a garish display that vaguely resembles — well, one might almost call it, a secular crèche. It’s basically a white plastic fireplace with Santa stockings on each side, bedecked with cardboard mini-trees and toy kiddy cars, all framed with layers of glistening (what looks like) bridal arches.

Everything has a price tag on it, of course. Two glittery artificial conifers rise in the background. If nothing else, they distract from the halloweenish figures behind them. Green is easier on the eye than orange.

Whatever any of this may have to do with Christmas in the minds of its designers, the display well reflects what Christmas popularly has become. Christmas has collapsed into the “holiday shopping season,” just as human lives themselves collapse into mere objects — merchandise to consume and be consumed — when the divine in them is ignored or denied.

The display announces “Christmas” — without naming it — as a shopping season between Sept. 15 and Dec. 24. By then even the real trees will be mostly dry. But it was not always that way. And it doesn’t have to be that way this year.

I wanted to wait a month at least to bring up the subject of Advent. School has just resumed and fall is barely on the way. We aren’t even thinking of Halloween yet, not to mention Thanksgiving. Yet here it is before us: the temptation to focus on what we need to have more of instead of what we need to get rid of so we can see what really matters.  

Advent, as we well know, is all about, letting go and letting God. It’s about God coming to free our lives from what clutters the clear path to happiness. That way is THE Way: the Light that came into the World. Amidst the noise and the glitter, it is like a voice crying in the wilderness, challenged to compete with the chaotic roar of the marketplace. 

This year Advent begins on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Dec. 1. Easy to remember. The liturgical colors change from green to violet, the bluer shades of purple. This is the Church’s New Year. Even before Christmas was established for Dec. 25, hope was the theme of this season, hope for the coming of God, not only to the whole world at the end of time, but also into our lives here and now, thanks to the Incarnation. 

I sometimes muse with my Jewish friends that we are both messianic peoples. We both long for the coming of God in history. Our time lines may be a little different, but we both believe the Messiah will come when time is at an end. What our faiths share in common is a conviction not only that God exists, but is also intimately involved in our lives.

People who believe that God knows them, loves them and is accessible — even though the transcendence, mystery and otherness of God is beyond our imagination — see life differently from those who only think reality is what they can see, measure and control. Without that conviction, even Christmas itself — the very incarnation of God in time — is no longer seen as a gift coming to us, but something that we must make happen. It is just an extension of our work, with no room for the surprising and unexpected.

Chris Churchill wrote on a similar theme recently in a Times Union article: “The Importance of Slowing Down.” (See page 6) He reflects on, losing our Sabbath sense, we have “ditched the ‘moral economy’ and prioritized hyper-consumerism, convenience and free market absolutism — often with bad consequences for workers, families and communities.”

Advent is proposed as a kind of Sabbath, a time to greet a new year in the way we used to observe Sundays, with an awareness and celebration of our prime relationships, with family, friends and with God. These are the bonds that last and define who we really are.

Thanksgiving can set us up for a fruitful Advent. It is that one day of the year that most everyone looks forward to because all you have to do, really, is show up. Sure there are preparations and someone has to get the meal together, but the ingredients are generally simple, direct and accessible. Like the God who comes to us.  

In the weeks ahead, we will be pulling together all of our best resources to propose some “courses” for a spiritually nourishing Advent. We can think of the season as an extension of what we do at Thanksgiving: thank God for our blessings, our relationships, our hopes and memories — and share our stories. Advent is a graced time for making amends, for reconciliation, for daily prayer and strengthening our hope in difficult times. It is a time for wondering what will next year be like, what can it be. And it’s not too early to start praying for a new year of grace.