Joyful Expectation: In Advent, be intentional about waiting

Aaron Lambert

It’s been said in recent years that roughly 60 percent of news readers only read headlines. That means that for every four of you reading this, six others glanced at the headline above, whether it was in their email or social media feed, but didn’t actually click on the article to read it.

In a way, this simple stat reflects the state of society today and how none of us like to wait — for anything. Whether we’re sitting at a stoplight, waiting in line at a restaurant or suffering through commercials waiting for This Is Us to come back on, many of us have a constant need to be doing something while we’re waiting. We’re not content to just wait, to just be.

Smartphones seem to be the default distraction these days. Instead of looking up and observing the world around us while we wait, we turn our gaze down. Instead of striking up a conversation with a fellow “waiter,” we browse through posts on Facebook and Instagram.

So with Advent just around the corner, what better time is there to remind us what the act of waiting is all about, and more importantly, how to wait well?

Waiting patiently

Practically and spiritually speaking, Advent is a season of waiting. As we enter the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we eagerly count down the days to Christmas. Those days are usually filled with lots of shopping, cooking and planning — all in preparation for the impending celebration.

There are two ways that people generally approach this period of preparation, which could also be called a period of waiting. One is with excitement and eagerness — excitement for family to come into town, excitement to see the kids’ faces on Christmas morning and the excitement of the season in general. The other is one of dread and trepidation — dread about all the cooking that has to be done, dread about hosting in-laws and an overall sense of wanting the season to be over before it’s even started.

Spiritually, we all encounter these same feelings as well. We constantly pray, present our petitions to the Lord, waiting on him to provide an answer. Sometimes we’re excited about what he has in store for us; sometimes we’re not. But it’s that period of waiting for him that can at times be the most excruciating.

St. Augustine has something to say about this waiting period. “If God seems slow in responding,” he wrote, “It is because He is preparing a better gift. He will not deny us. God withholds what you are not yet ready for. He wants you to have a lively desire for His greatest gifts. All of which is to say, pray always and do not lose heart.”

There are two lessons to be gleamed from Augustine. The first is that waiting is not something to be dreaded. In this age of instant gratification, where we can answer emails on our smartphones and have literally anything shipped to our front door in two days’ time, waiting has become an annoyance, an inconvenience. What has been lost is that in a certain sense, waiting is a form of suffering. And as Christians, we are called to unite our sufferings to Christ, no matter how minuscule that suffering may seem. Waiting at a stoplight? Don’t pull out your phone. Instead, bask in the moment, turn on some music and thank God for another day.

The second lesson is that we are not in control; God is. Why do we teach our kids the concept of patience? It’s because despite all our efforts to eradicate it, we know that waiting is an inherent and necessary part of life. As Augustine points out, God will not deny us, nor will he let us down. He wants us to desire his gifts, and sometimes, in order for that desire to come to fruition, it means having to wait. Waiting may be hard sometimes, but in doing so, we can better appreciate and rejoice in the fulfillment of those desires.

Waiting hopefully

In Spanish, the word for “wait” is esperar. But it is also the root of the word esperanza — hope.

The very act of waiting implies that some sort of payoff or fulfillment is coming. Sometimes we know when that which we’re waiting for will be here: that package from Amazon ordered two days ago, the release of the next Star Wars movie or the birth of a child. Other times, however, our hope is placed in something that is completely unknown: results of a medical test, a much-needed job offer or the return of a loved one serving overseas.

The mundane, day-to-day waiting we all do is not always easily undertaken, and sometimes we are left disappointed or even heartbroken. However, as Christians, we are waiting for something greater than we can imagine, and we know it’s waiting that is not done in vain. Advent is a fervent reminder of this, as week after week we approach the certain coming of Christmas, which marks the Incarnation, the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

But in an even bigger way, we await the coming of Jesus Christ. We encounter him each week at Mass in the Eucharist, but still we wait for him. The apostles, too, waited for him, after he ascended into heaven. They walked alongside him and were taught by him and encountered him in the upper room after the resurrection, making their hope in his return much more palpable than ours today.

St. Paul in his wisdom wrote much about hope and waiting for Christ’s return in his letters. In Romans 8, he writes: “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Rom 8:24-25). These words are perhaps even more pertinent today than they were at his time. Advent reminds us that our hope is in Jesus Christ, and our hope is not in vain.

It does no good to fret and worry while we wait, whether that’s in the drive-through line at Chick-Fil-A or in the grander scheme of awaiting our savior. Waiting should not be seen as wasteful and unnecessary, but rather as an opportunity to enjoy the present moment God has given us and make the most of it, just as we do during Advent.

Waiting joyfully

It’s in this spirit of patience and hope that we enter the season of Advent. However, as we approach Christmas, there’s another spirit we should be radiating, one even more important than hope and patience.

The third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, which literally means “rejoice Sunday.” It is marked in the liturgy by the color rose, and it is intended to be a celebration of the closeness of the Lord’s coming at Christmas the following week. By that point, the house is prepped, the meals are planned, the presents are wrapped…now what?

Now is the time to be joyful! Joy is what carries us through all the waiting we do at Advent, and it is what carries us through all the waiting we do in life. No matter how difficult the waiting may be, we all have something big to look forward to in our reunification with Christ.

In John 16, Jesus is speaking to his apostles about his impending death and resurrection. “So you have sorrow now,” he tells them, “but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:22).

We know the rest of the story, and we know that our waiting is not done in vain. So wait well, wait intentionally, and don’t let all the waiting take your joy in this season of Advent.

COMING UP: What saints teach us about living Advent

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“Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come,” Jesus counsels us in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent. Throughout this season the readings carry a similar, two-fold message: be alert and attentive so you can hear God’s will for you and cleanse yourself so you are ready to receive him when he comes, both in your life and at Christmas.

Advent is a forgotten season for some as it gets swallowed up in the blitz of advertising, decorating and buying gifts. But Advent is not a time for busyness; it’s a time to grow in awareness, to be quiet and to prepare for Christ with repentance.

God gives us St. John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, as a model for how to live Advent. He lived in the silence of the desert, ate simply, and was attentive to the Holy Spirit as he trained to announce the coming of Jesus. We can do this through spending time in attentive silence with the Blessed Sacrament or reading Scripture in a quiet setting, examining our consciences and going to confession, and through acts of charity.

The importance of being attentive is underscored by the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast we will celebrate on December 12.

As the humble commoner Juan Diego was on his way to Mass in December 1531, he heard the sound of beautiful singing, unlike anything he had ever heard before. As he looked at the hill from which the singing was coming, it ceased and was followed by silence. Then he heard a voice saying, “Dear Juan, dearest Juan Diego.”

The fruit of his attentiveness and silence made St. Juan Diego able to hear Mary call him. It’s worth asking ourselves, “How often do I spend time in silence so I can hear God?”

For many of us, silence is difficult to be in. We are so used to constant noise that we don’t realize it until silence arrives. This is where the second important aspect of Advent that John the Baptist shows us comes in. Through his practice of self-denial, John the Baptist was able to hear God’s message for his people and call them to repentance. When we are in right relationship with God the Father, silence can be filled with his peace and his will becomes more apparent.

To the humble St. Juan Diego, Mary revealed that God wanted to bring his mercy to the inhabitants of Mexico and all who love her.  She told Juan Diego, “I want very much that they build my sacred little house here, in which … I will give Him to all people in all my personal love, Him that is my compassionate gaze, Him that is my help, Him that is my salvation. Because I am truly honored to be your compassionate mother.”

At the time of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearances, the people of the region were experiencing great uncertainty and into that void the Blessed Mother came to personally show them her love and guide them to Jesus.

It is through Mary that Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, bringing joy and God’s compassion to a world in great need. In our own time of uncertainty and waiting for the Lord, Mary desires to be our compassionate mother. Let each one of us open our hearts to Mary so she may guide us in our preparation for receiving her son in our lives and at Christmas.  May Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Juan Diego and St. John the Baptist help us to stay awake and to cleanse our hearts so they may be more receptive to the love the Father offers to the world in his son, Jesus.