Waiting and watching for Christ’s arrival

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

“As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” These words from the liturgy perfectly summarize the spiritual disposition we should cultivate during Advent. Similar words are prayed at each Mass after the Our Father, “…as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

The liturgical season of Advent derives its name from the Latin word adventus, which means either “presence,” “arrival,” or “coming,” depending on the context. In ancient times, it was a technical term that referred to the arrival of an official or the visit of the king or emperor to a city or region. In his homily for the beginning of Advent in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI shared this background and explained: “Christians used the word ‘advent’ to express their relationship with Jesus Christ: Jesus is the King who entered this poor ‘province’ called ‘earth’ to pay everyone a visit; he makes all those who believe in him participate in his Coming, all who believe in his presence in the liturgical assembly. The essential meaning of the word adventus was: God is here, he has not withdrawn from the world, he has not deserted us.”

The time of Advent can be summed up in two short phrases: “deep hope” and “watchful waiting.” The birth of Jesus, after centuries of waiting, was God’s answer to the longings of countless hearts for the promised Messiah, and this longing still exists in the hearts of those who do not yet know Jesus.

The impact of Christ’s arrival at Christmas and at the end of time should be something that we are preparing for in our hearts and in our prayer life. Benedict XVI suggests that Advent “invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us.” He even proposes keeping an ‘interior journal’ of these signs as a way to immerse ourselves in this reality of his love that we so often gloss over. When we become attuned to the daily signs of God’s love for us, then waiting in joyful hope comes to us naturally.

The recently canonized Saint John Henry Newman describes this waiting in a sermon on Mark 13:33, the passage reads, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”

Reflecting on this warning from Christ, St. John Henry Newman preached, “He foresaw the state of the world and the Church, as we see it this day, when His prolonged absence has made it practically thought, that He never will come back in visible presence: and in the text, He mercifully whispers into our ears, not to trust in what we see, not to share in that general unbelief, not to be carried away by the world, but to ‘take heed, watch, pray,’ and look out for His coming.”

For St. John Henry Newman, this state of watchfulness is an essential characteristic of Christians and a part of the fabric of our daily lives. He writes, “We are not simply to believe, but to watch; not simply to love, but to watch; not simply to obey, but to watch; to watch for what? for that great event, Christ’s coming.”

His description of a watchful disciple is so well done that it is worth quoting. “He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honouring Him; who looks out for Him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that He was coming at once.”

This naturally poses the question to each of us: ‘Would you be agitated or overwhelmed to learn that Jesus was coming a second and final time today?’ Pope Francis began Advent this year by warning people not to fill the longing in our hearts for God with material things, believing that “life only depends on what you have.” This outlook would produce feelings of agitation if Jesus came today, since those seeking material possessions will be empty-handed when they encounter the reality of Christ’s coming.

Instead, let us seek God’s love by daily watching for his coming and preparing for his arrival. Rejoice! God is with us.

COMING UP: Joyful Expectation: In Advent, be intentional about waiting

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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.