Want to watch a priest or pastor in the liturgical season tradition blow a gasket? Wish her or him Happy Christmas in early December. You will likely get a withering look worthy of the Dowager Countess Grantham and a lecture on Advent.
Advent is the first season of the Church year, beginning four Sundays before Christmas. Advent, from a Latin root which means "arrival" or "waiting," developed in some ways as a mini-Lent, a preparation time before the Feast of the Nativity. In the ancient church, Advent encompassed the six Sundays before Christmas, which would really mess up the symmetry of Advent candles and wreaths. We eventually settled on four, for no particular reason. Traditions of Advent have included fasting and penance, like Lent. But Advent is not Lent. They might be sister seasons, but they are distinct, as well. While Lent is a season of penance, Advent is a season of waiting.
Which probably explains why we make Advent a season it is not. Waiting is not fun.
For those of you who are reveling in your piety right now, knowing you keep a holy Advent, here's a quick way to engage the season. Spend a day at the local department of motor vehicles. Go on the last day of the month, when all the people who didn't renew their tags or licenses are there. Go there and stand. And wait. And stand. And wait. And wait.
Or go to an event where the speaker is fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes late. How quickly do we start to complain, start to make observations about the leader not being courteous of our time? How quickly do we become annoyed that WE have to wait.
See, waiting isn't fun. It's annoying, troubling, and hard. It's difficult to find the holiness in waiting. We are, by and large, an impatient people. From our ancestors in the faith to the current church, we want God to act now and with haste on our timetable.
And God just laughs.
Because waiting is anything but speedy. Waiting is that moment after you've pruned the tree. It looks bare and ragged. Gashes show where old branches used to grow, the ones that had become too heavy or were dying or needed to be pruned to encourage new growth. Waiting is the space between the actual pruning and the spring blooms, where the tree seems to be doing nothing but looking scraggly. Waiting is the moment between Good Friday and the Resurrection, when the tomb is sealed and filled with the dead body of Christ. Waiting calls us to sit, to be still, to do nothing, and to trust the slow work of God.
Advent is best understood as a season pregnant with hope, with what is to come. Mary figures quite prominently in Advent, as she should. It is a season of the holy feminine - carrying something new within us, within our community, that which is waiting to be born yet needs time to gestate. A Rabbi friend reminds me that women are born with this spiritual truth within our cells and souls. And we are. Men, he says, can only learn it from listening to the wisdom of women.
This wisdom, in part, is that a life of faith will involve cycles of waiting, when the old has been removed, but the new has not yet been born. God needs holy things to gestate within our souls and within our communities. These holy ideas, understandings, insights, and actions all need time to become. If they are born too early, at our demanding impatience, they cannot survive. God knows the exact time of birth. We, usually, do not.
And so we must wait. We must wait for the growth to begin, to mature. We must wait through the discomfort, even the sickness, as we allow the new thing to develop. We must wait for the labor pangs. We must wait for the water and blood to rush forth, heralding the birth. We must wait.
Advent draws us into this truth of life, of the immense importance of waiting. For four Sundays, we hear the cries of a people, of our own souls, wanting to know when, how, and why. For four Sundays, we encounter Mary, a young woman heavy with the holy Child gestating within her, waiting. For Advent, we stand in lines, pace the halls, feel uncomfortable, sit in tears even, at our frustration of the act of waiting for something, anything, to be born.
We do not like waiting. And yet, God knows that we must wait as God waits.
The poet Rilke writes, "You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not.... The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity."
Advent matters because it is the holy season of waiting for the birth. The birth of Jesus, the birth of new ideas, the birth of courage, the birth of new songs and dreams, and the birth of what God has impregnated within us that is gestating.
So, what future is waiting to be born from you and from your community?
Will you wait? Will you let Advent matter?