I’ve noticed that I’ve gone through three distinct phases in my understanding of the kind of waiting we do during the Advent season. I call them passive, active, and collaborative waiting.
When I was a child (late pre-school and grades 1 – 3) I understood Advent waiting the same way I dealt with presents under the Christmas tree. I’d try to guess what was in the package swaddled in such festive paper and tied up with ribbons and a bow, all the while thinking: “Why can’t I just have my present NOW? Why do I have to wait until Christmas Eve to unwrap it? My present is already present under the tree; it’s just a silly custom that I have to wait to receive it.” Notice that this was passive waiting: the present had already been chosen for me by the gift-givers (my parents) and I didn’t have to do anything to get it, except to wait for the moment the gift-givers had decided upon. I treated Advent much the same way. I pretended that Jesus hadn’t become incarnate and that I was in the same condition as the Jewish people who were longing for a Messiah. God, the gift-giver, had already decided when he would bestow the greatest Gift of all, Jesus, on us and we had to “passively” wait until the time was right. Come Christmas I pretended that Jesus was now a baby in Bethlehem and that my time of waiting was now over, at least until next year.
Eventually that kind of waiting didn’t make sense to me. By late grade school I couldn’t pretend that Jesus had not come to us in the flesh centuries ago. By then I knew that the only Jesus available to me was the Risen Lord, so what did Advent waiting now mean? I shifted to active waiting with the help of two great images: farming and pregnancy. In commending patience to God’s people, the Letter of James speaks of the waiting a farmer does after planting the seed. While waiting for the harvest, he is anything but passive. His days are spent making sure the weeds do not choke the growing plant, that it has enough water and nutrients to grow appropriately, and that no animals dig it up for an early meal. Similarly when a woman finds out she is pregnant, her waiting for the child’s birth is never passive. She actively watches her diet so that the growing child has the proper nutrients. She visits health professionals who monitor the child’s growth. She prepares the room where the child will sleep, buying a crib and a stroller and a supply of diapers and toys for the delight of the newborn. So for my Advent waiting, I imposed on myself various disciplines – more daily prayer, fasting from holiday foods, being more generous with my money and my time – by which I hoped to prepare a new and deeper place for Christ in my life. Everything depended on me and my will power, but since I soon fell away from my “Advent resolutions,” my active waiting was a source of frustration and guilt, not the best of moods by which to prepare for Christmas.
The shortcomings of active waiting eventually led me to the collaborative kind of Advent waiting I do these days. I don’t do passive waiting since I know that we have already received the greatest Gift in the life, teaching, death and destiny of Jesus. I don’t do active waiting since I have learned that things occur according to God’s timetable, not according to my will power. I’ve begun to make room for grace. Collaborative waiting is best expressed by a central petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What am I waiting for? That the kingdom/reign of God that Jesus proclaimed, gave his life for, and inaugurated through the power of his Spirit will come true: that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, i.e., completely and perfectly. I try to read the “signs of the times” to discover where the Spirit of Jesus is calling me to follow and then align myself with his divine energies.
Here is a stumbling example of collaborative waiting: It took the United States until the middle of the 19th century to come to believe that slavery—human beings owning other human beings—was incompatible with God’s will for his creation: that’s a long, long time of waiting. Now, more than a century later, slavery is literally unimaginable in our culture; conversion of hearts has taken place in the majority of our citizens. (Admittedly we are still grappling with the effects of slavery, but I have great hope that we will eventually live human equality according to God’s will, even if I don’t see it during my lifetime.)
I am waiting for “a new heaven and a new earth” where the destruction of any human life, from young to old, would be as unimaginable in the future as slavery is unimaginable today. I am waiting for a world where every human will be cherished, treated with dignity, and share in the blessings God gives us. Therefore I am called to collaborate with all people of good will to work toward that day. Frankly, I don’t think I’ll see this conversion of hearts in my lifetime. But my waiting can be fruitful if I witness to God’s grace changing hearts even when I don’t see the results. It is in this context that I “await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ” in Advent.
fr. jan michael joncas
Fr. Jan Michael Joncas is an internationally acclaimed scholar, theologian, author and composer. He has been member of the University of St. Thomas community for 40 of his 60 years, and was recently named a university artist-in-residence and fellow of St. Thomas’ Center for Catholic Studies.
Nativity Illustration: Frank Kacmarcik