The Expectancy of Advent

Advent couldn’t arrive at a more appropriate time of year. Just when we’re getting revved up for special parties, homemade dishes to complement fine feasts, gift shopping, and lavish decorating, the Church reminds us to be still. To listen. To wait with God and for Him.

It can be agonizing to wait in silence when we’re used to bustling activity. Maybe we’ve set lofty expectations of what “must” be done, because it’s a family tradition: getting that perfect photo for our Christmas cards, finding expensive gifts for our hard-to-please relatives, making grandma’s pecan pie from scratch. To eliminate or substitute seems like utter failure, or at the very least, disappointment.

So we are, once again, a countercultural people as we attempt to retreat inward, slow down, and ponder the treasure nestled within Mary’s womb. We don’t like to wait, but wait we must. Only this time, during Advent, our waiting is intentional. Expectant. Anticipatory.

When we think of waiting otherwise, we summon images of irritating and impatient memories related to waiting rooms at doctor’s offices, being stuck in long traffic jams on hot summer days, the space between hope and fear before our biopsy results are announced, hanging out in the checkout lane at the grocery. Waiting in the world – to the world – is unnecessary and frustrating. We shouldn’t have to wait when the world is at our fingertips. We are accustomed to instantaneous results due to the fast-paced technology of computers. And the use of our devices is ubiquitous.

Not long ago, I made a routine phone call to one of Sarah’s physician’s offices to follow up on a particular test result. Two minutes had barely transpired before the receptionist politely but apologetically said, “Thank you for your patience.” Taken aback, I replied, “Please don’t worry about it. I’m perfectly okay to wait.” Another two minutes passed, and she came back on the phone to apologize once again for the wait. It dawned on me that perhaps most patients are not patient! Her experience with the typical client was likely met with sighing, backhanded comments muttered under one’s breath, and sarcasm.

Most people are flippant when they have to wait. It’s not about exercising charity in our demeanor and language. We don’t always consider how we respond in situations that test our patience. Instead, we lash out at the poor cashier, construction manager, sales clerk, or receptionist. No, the world does not appreciate the value of waiting, certainly not this time of year.

But Advent waiting accesses a less primal part of us, namely, our souls. We’re invited into a pregnant waiting instead of the “hurry up and wait” mentality of the current cultural climate. This spiritual expectancy differs from the secular understanding of its desire to eschew any opportunity – self-imposed or otherwise – to pause and ponder.

I recently wrote a book that unraveled the mysteries surrounding the spirituality of waiting, and I discovered many hidden treasures explained by philosophers, theologians, and psychologists. Essentially, God permits us to wait either actively (as we do in Advent), which means that we are joyfully preparing ourselves for the “something greater” that He has already begun in us. This could be a project, a child in utero, a betrothal, working toward a college degree, purchasing a home, etc.

Thinkers universally agree that passive waiting, however, comprises the majority of our experiences with feeling stuck or in the middle and going nowhere. This relates directly to the Lord’s Passion, which began when He was “handed over.” This use of moving Jesus from subject (“He handed Himself over”) to object (“He was handed over”) is not insignificant. It directly translates into what we, too, are called to do: when we find ourselves victims of circumstance and feel helpless because we cannot control or change what is happening, then we are given an incredible opportunity for passive waiting. We allow ourselves, like Jesus, to be “handed over” to an unknown outcome. In this way, we grow in humility by leaps and bounds.

I have a few ideas of practical ways we can grow during our spiritual hiatuses. These include patience, practice, and perseverance – three very key virtues and disciplines (as in the case of practice) that have sagely guided me closer to personal sanctification. I hope they will aid you in your Advent journey, as well.

Patience

Patience, people, till the Lord is come
Patience, people, for the Lord is coming.

See the farmer await the yield of the soil.
He watches it in winter and in spring rain. (Antiphon)

You have seen the purpose of the Lord.
You know of His compassion and His mercy. (Antiphon)

Antiphon:
Patience, people, till the Lord is come
Patience, people, for the Lord is coming.

Steady your hearts, for the Lord is close at hand
And do not grumble, one against the other. (Antiphon)

Patience, People by John Foley, S.J.

There are few Advent hymns that settle my soul like this one does. I consider the metaphor of a farmer planting the seeds for his crops, then waiting for the first sprout to appear, then again waiting for the mature plant to flourish, then again for the harvest – all the while trusting that God is at work in this seed.

It’s true in us, as well. Advent reminds us that we cannot be hasty in wanting every unfinished aspect of our lives to be complete. We know that it won’t be fulfilled until we die and hopefully enter the beatific vision. But we can be certain that our waiting – vigilant, expectant, like the wise virgins who kept the oil in their lamps – will yield a hundredfold to the seeds planted in our lives. These seeds, however miniscule and invisible to the human eye, are watered by the virtue of patience. And patience is only achieved through long bouts of suffering through the unknown.

Practice

The only way to bear the burden of waiting without losing your interior peace is to practice the discipline of prayer in solitude. This Advent, try listening more than you speak to God. For me, this is maddening, because I am verbose, but it is necessary to allow my heart to become still before the Lord. And stillness gives way to patient endurance while you anticipate the Light penetrating the cruel, dark night of your soul.

Perseverance

Romans 5:3-4 states, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

No one wants to think about suffering during Advent. All sacramentals lead the senses to wonder, exuberance, light, hope. But we can’t neglect the reality that hope and wonder and light do not exist without living the questions, the doubts, the darkness first. Sometimes, as we know, life hinges on both light and darkness, wonder and apathy, hope and despair. Moments of waiting lead us through the space between the paradoxes, and Advent precludes these moments from being lost and discarded.

Perseverance reveals our true character. Are we willing to forgo comfort and journey to Bethlehem’s crude stable with the Holy Family? Are we able to sacrifice the acquisition of more material possessions in favor of handing the King of Kings our nothingness? There is no greater path to enduring courage than by way of perseverant waiting. We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. And we do not wait in vain.

By

Jeannie Ewing believes the world focuses too much on superficial happiness and then crumbles when sorrow strikes.  Because life is about more than what makes us feel happy, she writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief.  As a disability advocate, Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers and is the author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph , A Sea Without A Shore: Spiritual Reflections for the Brokenhearted, Weary, and Lonely , and Waiting with Purpose: Persevering When God Says “Not Yet.”  Jeannie is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic magazines.   She, her husband, and three daughters live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website lovealonecreates.com.

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