Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin near the end of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Here the writer asks God why we have been allowed to stray “and harden our hearts against fearing you.” The writer goes on to plead that God steer us away from our sins: “And yet, Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus warning his disciples: “Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come.” He likens it to a man who goes on a long journey with no definite return time. The doorkeeper must stay awake lest his master find him asleep.
As you know the new liturgical year begins today with the First Sunday of Advent. So let me be the first to wish you a Happy New (Liturgical) Year. I don’t think I’m the only one, but I find that Lent lasts too long and Advent is over too soon. In fairness we spend over 6 weeks in Lent and only a little over 4 in Advent. Also, we spend much of Advent shopping for gifts, sending Christmas newsletters and choosing which parties we’ll attend (this year being the exception on parties). Advent often seems too frenetic.
And yet we are told that Advent calls us to wait. Wait for Christmas, wait for the birth of Jesus, wait, wait, wait, etc.
But we don’t like to wait. When I was in high school I was told that upperclassmen would attempt to sell a pass to freshmen that would allow them to cut in line at lunch. I never saw this but it made for an amusing commentary on our impatience, particularly when the poor freshman was told (in front of his classmates) that there was no such thing and he’d been had.
More recently I worked with someone who was addicted to Disneyland and would go there nearly every weekend. If you’ve ever been to anything Disney you’re well aware of the time you spend waiting in line (note for another day: how genius is it to design a park where people happily spend 45 minutes in line for a 4 minute ride?). She had a friend with an autistic child who couldn’t wait long periods in line and had a pass to get to the front of the line. My coworker bragged about “beating the system.”
Both instances feed our belief that waiting is a bad thing and something to be avoided if at all possible. In other words waiting is nothing more than a waste of our time, and if we think of ourselves as important our time is more valuable than others and our wasted time is more grievous.
What if it’s not true? Can the time we spend waiting be constructive, and even life changing? I hope so. I hope we can begin the process of changing Advent from “waiting” to “anticipating.”
Let me talk about two experiences (and I’ve had both): When someone is studying for the priesthood he spends about a year before his ordination as a deacon and I spent my time at Old St. Mary’s Church in San Francisco. I experienced a wonderful year knowing that there were certain things I could do (perform marriages and preach) and certain things I couldn’t do (celebrate mass, hear confessions, and anoint the sick). I had no desire to remain a deacon but I loved the time that I watched the priests I lived with and saw myself in their shoes.
My engagement taught me the other lesson. Nancy and I promised ourselves to each other but we spent several months making arrangements for our wedding. Engaged couples spend part of their engagement negotiating with the church, the caterers, the wedding party, etc. But they also spend that time planning how marriage will change their lives.
For me these were times of waiting, but they were also times for preparation. I found myself spending more time in prayer imagining what kind of priest and husband I wanted to be. Ironically when I was a priest I was given incredible and intimate access to the lives and marriages of several couples I knew and that gave me a deeper insight into what king of husband I wanted to be. I’m sorry more men don’t have this perspective.
I worship at a Newman Center. It’s not a parish, but a Catholic community attached to a university (University of California, San Diego). We had a pastor would would often assign homework at the end of his homily and many of us would groan when we heard this, especially the undergrad students. After spending most of their week in classrooms struggling with completing all of their assignments they did not relish having “church homework.”
And I promise not to give homework. More to the point, I’m not going to suggest that we take a busy season and make it busier by suggesting that we do something additional for Advent. I’m not going to suggest that we carve out time for more prayer or that we manufacture joy that Jesus will soon be among us.
Instead let us recognize what we are already doing. I’ll be talking about this more when we celebrate Epiphany but when we struggle to find the right gift for a loved one our focus isn’t on the gift but on our loved one. Our thoughts on our beloved points to our preparation for Christmas. When we exchange Christmas cards we reach out to those we love, and as often as not this card may be the only contact we have with each other. Though largely on hold this year, Christmas parties allow us to gather and celebrate each others’ lives and the year gone by.
Every year at this time we spend Advent awaiting the birth of Jesus that actually happened more than 2,000 years ago. On a deeper level Advent calls us to look at ourselves and how we wish to live our lives with the recognition that the Messiah is among us.
In many ways the Messiah is among us in the lives of those we love.