The Common Good
November-December 2000

Catalog Jesus

by Julie Polter | November-December 2000

I confess: I was a catalog girl who grew up to be a catalog woman.

I confess: I was a catalog girl who grew up to be a catalog woman. We had stacks of them when I was a child: Lillian Vernon and the petite Avon booklet left by the neighbor lady; a bounty of cookware, knickknacks, clothes, and books laid out appealingly on glossy pages. And, of course, best of the best, the Sears and J.C. Penney

Christmas wish books. I whiled away hours, days, weeks flipping the pages, compiling my lists: Lego sets, the Barbie Prom Ensemble, a giant Raggedy Ann. Catalogs were about fantasy and the potential fulfillment (it seemed) of every want, need, and dream.

Now that I am grown, my favored catalogs are most apt to hold clothing or shoes. (Hey, if you wore a size 11EE, specialty shoe catalogs would be your friends too.) The process of catalog shopping is second nature to me: The casual flip-through, noting things of interest (unrestrained at this stage by cost or practicality). The closer look, the discerning of desire or disinterest and the limits of budget. The selection, expression of commitment, the waiting, receiving, the resulting elation/disappointment/apathy. I name size-color-quantity, recite my credit card number, expiration date, amen with the practiced rhythms of one raised in a high church. Best of all, the priests and acolytes of this congregation wear the chocolate brown and purple vestments of UPS and Fed Ex and deliver the blessings right to my doorstep.

HERE'S THE POINT in this commentary where I'm supposed to repent from all that and decry the increasing materialism of our lives. The materialism that is inescapable in the season just begun—the autumn-long festival of marketed indulgence. In the Western world it will build in frenzy and size, like a slow, sure tsunami, and deposit us dazed and battered on Christmas morning, surrounded by stuff and trying to ignore the nagging voice that always asks, "Is this all there is?"

Of course my sincerity would be slightly dubious, since I've already announced my obvious facility at speed-round credit card ordering. You'd politely read on, note the standard "let's all step back and seek the real meaning of the season" message, then forget it (committee meetings, kids to pick up from soccer practice, shopping list, things to do, things to get, life rushes on).

So I'm not going to bother. I know how imperfectly I live out my commitments most days. Not as many of my sins in thought, word, and deed are as unconscious as I might prefer. Some of them, it is safe to say, are committed with catalog and credit card: We seek goods instead of God; we support unjust and exploitative labor practices with our money, we turn the blind eye to how we are connected to the harsh things of this world. The turning that is conversion is slow work. God willing, myself willing, I will come to buy less, appreciate more, seek change and not fashion statement, etc. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

But this isn't the precisely the point I'm going for this time.

Here, now, as I write, I'm preparing myself for the Advent season, itself a prepping time for Christmas. Christmas: Jesus' birth. God of the universe slipping into the world headfirst and yelping. Omnipotence condensed to the slippery, sacred, wordless text of an infant's vulnerability. Anticipation and mystery are what I want to sing.

Catalogs, ironically enough, weren't bad practice for the former. What is anticipation, anyway, except glimpsing something that might be, and deciding you want it, and awaiting its arrival, yearning for it even? But mystery: Mystery is something else entirely. There is no catalog code or customer service number that we can provide to procure the Messiah. There are no glossy pages that can contain the living power of Incarnation, of the Holy Spirit moving through a world battered, bruised, and beautiful, a world being called to remember its true song.

Christ is coming. No credit card necessary.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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