Embrace the waiting this Advent

Brianna Heldt is a Catholic writer, speaker and podcaster. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.

Five years ago, one of my daughters desperately needed open heart surgery. Newly adopted and four-years-old, her heart defects were the result of having been born with Down syndrome. The doctors all said that she should have had this surgery when she was much younger, but that was simply not an option in the country of her birth.

So there we sat in the hospital on a chilly December morning, my husband and me, praying and waiting. Waiting for an update from the nurse on how things were going, waiting to hear that my daughter had been placed on the bypass machine, and waiting for the surgeon to finally emerge with news that, miracle of all miracles, the surgery had been successful. After so very much waiting, my daughter’s heart was repaired.

As a mother to nine children, my waiting is of course not limited to dramatic situations in dimly-lit hospital rooms. I wait for sleepy kids to finish breakfast so we can rush off to school, I wait for them to put their pajamas on (and drink their hundredth glass of water) before I tuck them into bed at night, and I selfishly wait for them to reach milestones that promise to make my own life a little bit easier—although it turns out that each new stage brings its own unique challenges. Who knew?

I also spend a fair amount of time waiting at soccer games and swim meets, and in the car outside of our church each week until my eldest finally emerges, with her friends of course, from youth group.

But for as much as I do it, I really don’t like to wait. It feels stressful, and inefficient. Waiting necessitates not only a quieting of the heart and mind, but also the acknowledgment that there are (gasp!) things outside of my control.

And then there is the not knowing. How will things turn out, what will this look like, will there be suffering mixed with the joy? I sit and worry over challenges my children face (not least of which is the reality of growing up in an increasingly coarse and confused culture), or I fret about friends and family who are sick or struggling. I inadvertently take my eyes off of Jesus, and my heart fills with anxious thoughts about a future I cannot see.

More than ever, then, I desperately need Advent. It is a liturgical season entirely predicated upon this notion of expectation, and waiting, for Jesus. And not only that, but Advent calls us to penance, reflection, and silence, things that are hard to come by in our modern time. We must place our trust in the hope of what is to come, while we wait.

As difficult as it all is, this is actually one of the biggest blessings of Advent—being still and watching God’s plans unfold, with the expectation that no matter what, it will be good. Not necessarily easy, happy, or what I would choose, but certainly part of my journey toward holiness.

If I can continue to trust and to love, and to remember that I am (in the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta) merely a pencil in God’s hand, I open myself up to the astounding and perfect work of the Lord. When I accept my vocation and all of the accompanying joys and sorrows, I become like Mary when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation—not just giving my fiat or yes to the one specific thing being asked of me, but to whatever may lie ahead as a result. Unknowns and all. Without condition.

It is, however, hard to enter into Advent and tune out the voices of the world, especially during this frenzied time of year. I am prone to becoming distracted, overwhelmed by what the perfectionistic culture expects from super-moms (think elaborately crafted gingerbread houses, perfectly baked cookies, and getting all of your Christmas shopping done early). So it is all the more necessary to carve out time to simply love and to simply be, both individually and as a family.

This can be time spent at home reading good books or playing a game, saying (even just a decade) of a family rosary, or singing an Advent hymn. Your plans don’t have to be perfect or even particularly extensive to make for a good and holy Advent—remember that God asks for our hearts and for our best, and he knows we have seasons of life that are harder than others.

And unlike the world’s shallow, saccharine-sweet version of the holidays, Advent makes space for loneliness and suffering. Also, for tired moms. Advent gives us hope, as we prepare our hearts for the Savior who came into the world as a small and defenseless baby. Advent gives us courage to continue to give our yes, in the way of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our waiting, even in a hospital room, is suddenly redeemed by the love and mercy of Jesus in Advent.

COMING UP: Father Joseph Hearty on ministering to the dying

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