Throughout the past week, my inbox has been bombarded with advertisements relating to Black Friday. There is the Black Friday sale, the pre-Black Friday sale, the early Black Friday specials, and many other advertising catchphrases that point to the same thing: discounted material goods on the day after Thanksgiving.
Black Friday is not a topic that is commonly discussed among Orthodox Christians. Sadly, in the absence of the Church’s guidance on this holiday, most of us have made up our own minds as to whether and how we celebrate this holiday. For some, Black Friday is not a big deal and we might as well go along with the flow. For others, it is something that is contrary to a life lived in Christ.
I would like to address these perspectives from an Orthodox Christian perspective and offer some suggestions that will help guide us next week.
The History of Black Friday
As we all know, next Thursday marks a day of Thanksgiving in this country, a day on which we remember God’s mercies and compassions towards each and every one of us. On the day after Thanksgiving, people celebrate a national ritual that is almost as big as Thanksgiving itself — Black Friday.
Some believe that this term, which applies to one of the biggest shopping days of the year, was first used by police in Philadelphia in the 1960s to describe all of the chaos that occurs on that day. Certainly, we see that chaos year after year, because, invariably, there are always more than a few stories on Black Friday of people getting trampled, hurt, or sucked into brawls over some discount or another. Last year, CNN called the day “Black-eye Friday,” because there were fights across the country and even a few stabbings as people fought with one another to pick up sale-priced items.
Others believe that Black Friday has its origins from the 1800s in which retail stores began their serious shopping season right after the Thanksgiving parades had concluded. In 1939, when Thanksgiving was supposed to be celebrated on November 30, President Franklin Roosevelt actually moved Thanksgiving up by a week to November 23 in response to pressure from retailers that they wouldn’t have enough time to court shoppers. So important was this shopping day to retailers that they actually convinced a sitting U.S. President to change the date of Thanksgiving. Two years later, Congress passed a law that fixed Thanksgiving to the day we have now.
Yet others will say that Black Friday gets its name simply from the fact that retailers get in the black (as opposed to the red) because of all the sales they make that day. These, of course, are accounting terms: being in the black is good and means that a company is profitable; being in the red is not so good.
Regardless of the true origin of Black Friday, it is clear that sales and the exchange of money are at the heart of this holiday.
The Desires of our Heart
We know from our earlier discussion that increased sales and profits are the motivations for retailers on Black Friday, but what is our motivation in celebrating this holiday?
The answer, dear brothers and sisters, is oftentimes the desire of our heart for more possessions. We typically shop on Black Friday either to satisfy our own desire for more possessions or to get the best deal on gifts to satisfy the desires of someone else’s heart.
What makes us desire material possessions so much? In the Gospel, we read about an encounter that our Savior had with the rich young man who refused to sell his possessions for the sake of following Christ. In a miraculous way, this story always comes either on the Sunday after Black Friday (as is the case this year) or the following Sunday. I believe this is truly the work of the Holy Spirit, because this Gospel teaches us about our relationship with wealth and possessions. One wonders whether this rich young man really believed that an accumulation of wealth would make him happier. Most people would probably agree with that statement. They believe that an accumulation of wealth helps them to live an easier life and avoid all of the pain and suffering that brings sadness and depression.
This is actually not true, however, as we clearly see in the lives of the rich and famous. Don’t we all see those magazines at the check stands and those celebrity websites full of stories of alcohol and drug abuse, violence, divorce, and prodigal living? All of these stories testify that the rich and famous are no more content than anyone else despite their massive fortunes and piles of material possessions.
If wealth does not necessarily bring happiness, then what is going on? Why is our society so focused on wealth?
I think it’s all about avoiding the feeling of pain, using riches and possessions to medicate ourselves. Without God, we oftentimes suffer from an emptiness within our souls that we desperately try to fill with material things. As St. Theophan the Recluse said, “Most men are like shavings of wood curled around their central emptiness.” That is the answer, brothers and sisters; it is emptiness.
When a person feels overwhelmed by emptiness, he will go to almost any length to try to fill it, to try to avoid the pain caused by that emptiness. He will wake up at 2 o’clock on a frigid morning to stand in line for hours outside Wal-Mart. He will resort to violence against another human being to defend his right to accumulate more wealth and possessions. He will cease to be human just to possess and consume more. As St. John Chrysostomos said,
When a soul is distressed, it looks for comfort everywhere. The afflicted soul doesn’t want to be concerned about many things. It only wants peace and stillness. It is content to be done with the present things, even if nothing else follows.
We desire possessions to try to soothe our pain, because we are not at peace with ourselves. Writing in the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us that desire is a powerful force in our lives. If used correctly, it can bring about our union with God Who Himself is our life and joy, but if used incorrectly, it can humble us down to the ground. We remember God’s words to us in Gen 3: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” On one level, God is speaking to us about our nature, but on another level, we can perhaps see this as a prophecy, because we try to return to dust every chance we get. We desire what does not last, the things made up of the dust that will all pass away, and for this reason, we continue to feel empty and lack peace.
Our peace is not to be found in a Black Friday sale, on a store shelf, or within an Amazon box. Our peace begins with our own pain when we go deep within ourselves, face the emptiness in our souls, and invite God, Who fills all things, to come inside and fill it. As an elder of Mount Athos said,
My children, always remember Jesus so that in all your weaknesses you may find the appropriate medicine. Are you in pain? By calling on Jesus you will find relief and enlightenment. Are you in affliction? Call on Jesus and behold, consolation will dawn in the realm of your heart. Are you overcome by discouragement? Do not neglect to set your hopes on Jesus, and your soul will be filled with courage and strength. Are you bothered by carnal thoughts that allure you to sensual pleasure? Take the consuming fire of the name of Jesus and set fire to the tares. Are you oppressed by some worldly affair? Say, “Enlighten me, my Jesus, how to deal with the matter which lies before me. Work it out in accordance with Thy holy will.” And behold, you will be at peace and will walk with hope.
We must go inside our hearts and begin to understand why we feel emptiness. And then, we must find the appropriate medicine in our Savior. Only then will we find true peace, because the Kingdom of God is within us.
A Friday of Thanksgiving
So what should we do on Black Friday?
As we learned from St. Gregory of Nyssa, desire is a powerful force in our lives, so above all, we need to redirect our desires to what is truly important.
On Black Friday, we should continue our Thanksgiving in the sense of truly giving thanks to God for the possessions we already have, not to mention the families, relationships, and all of the other blessings we continually enjoy in our lives. You see, dear brothers and sisters, this is the very reason Black Friday always comes on the day after Thanksgiving. You can imagine the devil’s fury when he saw that a whole country was giving thanks to God on Thursday, so what did he do? He found a way to distract us on Friday. On Thursday, as we give thanks to God, our souls are lifted up to the heavens, but on Friday, as we compulsively shop, our souls are pulled back down to the dirt.
As Christians who are called to be the light of the world, we can’t accept this. We have to take a stand and avoid celebrating as the nonbelievers do. Remember what our Savior told us, “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it?” (Mk 9:50). The “it” in this verse is the world, and our Savior is telling us that we are the salt that must season or change this world. When we go along with these worldly celebrations, we become like salt that has lost its flavor. If we stand in the store lines on Black Friday, Christ Himself will be asking you, “Here you are. How will you season the earth?”
Instead of wasting our time in these store lines, we might consider spending the day at home with our families and have an honest discussion about how we spend money and give to others. In the Book of the Acts of the Holy Apostles, St. Paul exhorts us, “And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ ” (Ac 20:35). We can easily make this principle come alive in our families if we just stay home and focus on helping others rather than consuming more and more possessions that will not fill our hearts with peace and joy. Our family time is much more precious than anything we can ever buy, because the things we buy always end up on dusty shelves or in the garbage, but that family time that we spend with our children will be written on their hearts forever. St. Hilary of Arles, one of the Early Church Fathers from 5th c. France, teaches us, “A wise father warns his children not to love things which quickly vanish away.”
This year, instead of celebrating another Black Friday that produces no lasting peace or joy, let us do something that will truly satisfy our hearts and souls so that we may grow closer to God and change this world for the better.