One of the things I’ve come to appreciate over the years of working in a school is its seasons. As philosopher Jamie Smith has pointed out, each institution, whether the practice of law I came from, or the educational system I came to, has its own liturgies, its own seasons and ways of doing things. So, it is with the school year: fall gives way to Thanksgiving break, which gives way to Christmas plays and finals, followed by Christmas break, and the promise of a new year. If you’re a student or a parent, you follow this liturgy, and it forms the rhythms of your year and provides markers for the passage of our lives and those of our children.
For 2,000 years, the Church has had its liturgies and seasons. Advent, the current season, is one of those. Far from simply providing a ramp up to Christmas, however, Advent is a celebration and a season in its own rite. Advent (meaning, “arrival”) is a season of waiting and preparation, and of longing as we contemplate the Incarnation of the King.
Contemplation and waiting is not really our gig. Hustle and distraction is more of what we’re into. Most of the time, the Christmas season is really the superhighway of hustle and distraction, adding to our already packed and crowded lives with parties and decorating and present-buying and Hallmark movie watching (for some of you-yes, you know who you are). Some of us love Christmas because of warm traditions or memories past. Some see it as a season of undefined hope, hoping in hope itself. Others approach it with fear and dread, realizing that anxiety we already feel will reach toxic levels, or that we’ll sink into depression for what we’ve lost. The Christmas season is like a steroid; it takes what is already there, and boosts it to unnatural and sometimes unhealthy levels.
This is why seasons of preparation and waiting like Advent exist. If we’ll let it, Advent allows us, for just one moment, to step out of the cul-de-sac of futility and distraction and reflect: reflect on the fact that the God of the universe, the Lord of all creation, the One who not only created everything but sustains it minute-by-minute through His active will, came to earth in the humblest, earthiest way possible–dirty, poor, unsheltered, and totally vulnerable. Yet, in that makeshift cradle lay the Cross; a savior who would not just come to pat us on the back and tell us everything was okay, but who would be ripped apart to drive the death and sin from our lives, for all generations and for all eternity, and to restore us when we had been lost forever.
This quiet moment, ignored by man but heralded by the heavens, cataclysmic in its scope and meek in its manifestation, was achingly anticipated by the ancients. The prophets saw this day coming; in the Nativity story, figures like Mary and Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon, and Zechariah all represent Israel in her longing for the long-awaited Messiah. They encourage us to wait, as well. Not just sitting and doing nothing, which is what waiting often means to us. Rather, actively waiting, achingly anticipating the day when Christ will come again, longing for the time when He will make everything right and all we see around us that has gone wrong will be made new.
Henri Nouwen said that “to wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us…that, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.” Waiting means ordering our lives around anticipation of that day, and living, and loving, and serving, in such a way that all those things point toward it.
Advent, like the Sabbath, has the great power that spiritual rest and reflection and waiting and remembrance in the Lord always have: the power to remind us that most of the distraction and activity that governs so much of our lives doesn’t really matter, in light of either the day of the Lord that has come or that which is to come; the power of hope to rightly order our lives according to a longing and waiting for that day; and, the opportunity to celebrate the season and liturgy of this time of year as a remembrance of God’s gifts of salvation, of healing, of restoration, and of renewed relationship. May you reflect, wait, and hope well.