I remember what it was like to wait for Christmas as a young child. There was a growing sense of excitement and expectancy in the weeks leading up to the season and the passage of time was marked by unmistakable signs that the great day was drawing nearer. The first of these was the arrival of the Eaton’s catalogue. It was a wonder to us with its treasures displayed in vivid
colour, filling our heads with dreams and possibilities and our hearts with hope of what might come to pass as my brothers and I pored over its glossy pages. We would thoughtfully begin composing our letters to Santa, trying
not to sound too greedy but hoping he would read the longing in our hearts for that special doll or a pair of hockey skates. And we would become acutely aware of how hard it was to be good when constantly reminded that Santa was watching. Later, Dad would gather us in a circle to witness him solemnly burn each letter, knowing that the moment when the pot held nothing but ashes would herald their instant arrival in Santa’s mailbox at the
North Pole. The house would fill with the exotic aroma of spices and candied fruit As mom prepared the Christmas cakes, and we would line up to take our turn at
stirring the pudding before it went into its bowls to be steamed. Each morning we would search for and open a window in the Advent calendar to reveal the tiny pictures and scripture verses that heralded the birth of Jesus.
And on a cold frosty evening in mid-December we would pile into the car to find the perfect Christmas tree, wrestle it home, and all decorate it together singing carols and sampling the first batch of shortbread. Waiting for Christmas when I was a child was a time of special preparation; a time filled with meaningful activity and ritual that kept us attentive to the fact that something wonderful was coming. I remember this time of waiting
so vividly for its promise and because each event was filled with the love shared by my family.
This first Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of our liturgical cycle. It is our New Year’s Day. Our way of beginning is to enter into a time of waiting. We wait to celebrate again the wonder of the Christ Child born
among us to fulfill the ancient promises made by God through the prophets;and we wait in hope for that time when he will come again in glory at the end of all time to consummate God’s plan for us. But Advent has become perhaps, more familiar to us these days as the
season of panic, when we realize how much there is still to do before Christmas. Spurred on by the culture of consumerism, which has been pushing Christmas at us since early November, we lose ourselves in a flurry
of busy-ness and worry as we strive for the perfect celebration. We shop and bake and decorate, and fling ourselves into too many activities at home, at work, and even at Church. Our “Advent Hope” becomes the desire to get through it all in one piece without racking up too many bills. There is little time for us to pause and reflect on what God is doing in history, or in the world, or in our own lives… We are in danger of losing the art of waiting. We are losing the ability to wait in hope. Maybe part of the problem is that we have been waiting for two thousand years, and some of the immediacy of the Second Coming of Christ has worn off. We have been seeing the same signs and portents for so long that we
have turned our attention elsewhere — we have grown tired of waiting. And no wonder! When we look at the world around us it seems as though we don’t have to wait for anything. Our culture teaches us to expect
everything and expect it now: our gadgets, our toys, and our comforts. And we listen — acquiring staggering debt loads so we don’t have to wait while we save for the things we want. We are quickly making the earth into one
huge garbage dump because we can’t wait for something to wear out before we exchange it for a newer model. We put others and ourselves at risk because we can’t wait for the light to turn green at an intersection, or the pedestrian to clear the crosswalk. We destroy our health with fast foods because we can’t wait for a meal to be prepared. And we jump in and out of relationships because we can’t wait to grow in intimacy and respect with another person. On those occasions when we find waiting unavoidable, we can become short-tempered and impatient with those around us, or fill our time with distracting activity. We have come to think of waiting as a waste of time, a liability. We have fallen asleep by disengaging from the world God wants us to see and to love. Waiting is part of the rhythm of life. It is as necessary as it is unavoidable. Think of the mother waiting for her child to be born, or the farmer waiting
for the first green shoots of his crop to break through the soil. Both are filled with the expectation and hope that suffuses Advent waiting. And both express the need to be attentive and prepared as the time unfolds. Waiting can be a gift. It creates space in which to breathe, where one is free to pray, to listen to reflect and to respond – a space out of which new life can flow. But while we slumber there are many people in this troubled world who wait in the ashes of their lives in silence and despair: People whose lives are shaped by violence and injustice; people who wait in pain and hunger and fear, expecting nothing and drained of hope. People all too familiar with the sense of abandonment and longing of which the prophet Isaiah speaks. And while we slumber God waits with them…I think he waits for us to wake.
So what are we waiting for?
God’s people have long understood that waiting and idleness are not synonymous. Advent waiting is filled with the energy of the Holy Spirit calling us from our slumber, empowering us to use our gifts to bring a message of hope to those who wait in darkness. To be awake is to be aware of the world as it really is and to be actively
engaged in a life of discipleship in the world. When we can see and name the darkness that holds others we can touch them where they are, in love and companionship and enable them to see that God is with them in that same
love and companionship, restoring them to wholeness.
It is about letting go of our attachment to the details of our preparations so we are not distracted by them. One of my favourite Christmas stories is “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, by Dr. Seuss. The Grinch is a mean creature whose heart is “two sizes too small” who cannot stand to see others happy. He has a particular aversion to the Who’s of Whoville. On one Christmas Eve, he sneaks into the town of Whoville after everyone is asleep and steals everything they have for their Christmas celebration. He takes the presents and the stockings, the trees and the decorations, the food and all the little bits
and pieces of Christmas, shoving them up the chimneys so he can cart them away. Then he hides so he can watch the despair his actions have caused.
To his dismay, the Who’s of Whoville pay no attention to the missing signs of the holiday. They gather in a circle in the centre of town as usually, joining hands to sing a song of joy and welcome to Christmas Day. I’m trying to practice being a Who this Advent, letting my heart be open to the joy and wonder of the coming of the Christ Child. Advent waiting is not about idleness, nor is it just about the celebration of Christmas. It is a time of special preparation of our heart and our minds. A
time filled, not with the busyness of the season, but with meaningful activity and ritual that keeps us attentive to the fact that God is faithful and will bring to fullness what was begun on that first Christmas day. Advent hope opens
the eyes of our hearts to the joy of knowing he is coming again.
Watch with me!