Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the season of preparation before Christmas. At least as far as the church (mostly) is concerned.
In the culture at large, the Christmas season has already been underway for some time. And this year Thanksgiving was muscled out of the way on Thanksgiving night by major retailers anxious to get a jump on holiday sales, barely allowing the turkey, stuffing, and potatoes to settle before the onslaught began.
When I was a kid, I loved Christmas. Who wouldn’t? That magical day when all these presents arrived under a beautifully decorated tree. It was the focal point of the entire season. That Christmas catalog that arrived in October, endlessly paged through on the quest for toys to add to your Christmas list. The absolute impatience with which I viewed the weeks of December, willing them to melt away quickly so that we might get more speedily to Christmas.
Sometime in my youth, I remember driving home from our grandparents’ house at the end of a long Christmas day and mentioning that something felt different about Christmas that year. My father said, “It’s because it’s no longer as magical for you.” He was right. Once Santa was out of the picture and that childhood wonder about the day replaced by a slightly more world-aware teenage outlook, the holiday never quite felt the same. It had lost some of its magic. Christmas wouldn’t be the same.
In recent years, I have been able to reclaim some of the magic of the season. But it is not all found at Christmas. For me it is found just as much in Advent. It is found in the Waiting.
Perhaps it’s merely a function of age. Each year is clocking in at about 2.3% of my entire life. That is, each year is smaller than the standard margin of error. They are statistically insignificant and by my estimation are moving way too fast. While the college students I work with are anxious to get the season rolling, anxious to begin singing Christmas music and decorating, I find myself wishing more and more for things to just… slow… down. The child who could not wait for Christmas Day to arrive has become the man who wishes the days of Advent to slow to a crawl.
My students will no doubt find this odd, and that’s to be understood. There are some things about growing older you only understand by doing it. But for old and for young, there is another reason for us to embrace the season of Advent. It is because waiting has become a lost art.
Time was, we had to wait for things. You had to write a letter, drop it in the mail, allow a few days for delivery, wait for your correspondent to write a reply, drop it in the mail, take a couple of days to get back to you. At the quickest, this would take at least a week. Businesses, law firms, governmental agencies all understood the time period involved. Now, you send an e-mail and expect a reply within minutes. If a reply is not received, another e-mail will shortly be sent: “I don’t know if you got my first e-mail….”.
Documents are sent electronically via PDF rather than courier. Purchases made instantly online. Information wondered about or looked up at home is accessible via smartphone from every part of the globe. We no longer even just wait at the bus stop or on the subway platform. We entertain ourselves via smartphone with games, Facebook, and other diversions, so that even our waiting time isn’t really waiting time; it’s just more busy time while standing still. There are no pauses. There is no waiting. Every thing happens quickly; every moment filled.
There is a dearth of Sabbath time in our culture. We rarely take the pauses in life that healthy, spiritual living requires. A function of that is our inability to wait. Perhaps I am the only one who finds the current culture exhausting but I don’t think so. The students I work with now are under more pressure, seem more tired and stressed, more stretched thin, than any group I’ve known before. Sabbath rest, pause, and waiting, might bring a little bit of balance back to lives constantly on the go.
I still love Christmas. But the reasons have more to do with the wonderful period of Advent that precedes it. The miracle of the Incarnation really only makes sense with a period of longing and hope before it. And lest we think that it is only in Christmas that we find God, we are reminded that it is often in those wildernesses, those deserts, the in-between places, that God is also encountered. For in the waiting we find rest. In the waiting we find our hopes rekindled. In the waiting we come to understand that “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
Rev. Mark A. Schaefer
United Methodist Chaplain