I get the point of today’s readings: Stay awake! Wait!
In his letter to the Romans (Romans 13:11-12), St. Paul says:
Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
Matthew has you saying this in his gospel (Matthew 24:37-44):
Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Song of Man will come.
I hate waiting, God. In fact, I only eat at restaurants with immediate seating or reservations. When I see a bunch of shivering folks—winter coats and scarves on—engaged in small talk as they try to stay warm outside the front doors of the Outback Steakhouse, I’m out of there.
Even worse is the bar. Don’t get me started on that.
Waiting … … … … it seems to me … … … is … … yet … … another discipline a person needs to work at and eventually master in order to find peace, whatever that is.
Advent is a good time to practice waiting.
The four weeks that precede Christmas are like pregnancy: chock full of excitement, anticipation, bloating, and heartburn. The closer we get to celebrating your coming into our world, the more likely we’ll start to engage in peculiar behavior, much like “nesting” in those days before the baby arrives: cleaning out cupboards, painting basement walls, sorting through your “The Idiot’s Guide to …” collection of books you haven’t touched in three years.
However, in Advent the nesting manifests itself as manic shopping sprees, annoyingly long and boring holiday letters (Do I really care that Joey can now wipe himself?), and the urge to invite friends and neighbors over to gossip and drink eggnog.
During our birth-preparation classes, Eric listened with delight to the nurses’ description of this whole nesting phenomenon. He came home every day during my ninth month of pregnancy (both times) like a little boy on Christmas morning, hoping to see a spotless kitchen. Instead he found his wife in gastrointestinal distress.
The nesting angel apparently skipped over our home seeing that it was hopeless. Which brings me back to my point, God, that I suck at waiting. Always have. Always will.
I need your help with this.
Henri Nouwen devoted a whole book to the topic. In “The Path of Waiting,” he wrote:
The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction.
I think that’s why I have trouble with waiting: it requires some relinquishing control. And, in the brain of a depressive, anything that can’t be controlled is automatically bad. In other words, I tend to categorize all things without an ETA (estimated time of arrival) as dangerous: something hurtful might very well happen; I must brace myself with defensiveness and shield my heart with sarcasm.
But the whole point of your coming here, the whole point of Christmas, is that you come with hope and joy, not sadness and sorrow.
I could get used to that.
Because if I’m doing the best I can–if I’m loving you with all my heart, mind, and soul, and loving my neighbor as myself–then your coming only means good things. I don’t have to worry that I don’t have it down perfectly: that my house didn’t get cursed, I mean blessed, with the nesting syndrome, that it’s still a mess; and that I haven’t composed an annoying holiday letter chronicling the boring details of my life (“Katherine’s favorite Disney princess has just changed from Ariel of ‘The Little Mermaid’ to Jasmine of ‘Aladdin.’ We’re still grieving the loss of Sebastian the Crab, and his wonderful influence over our daughter …”), or bought any gifts, participated in any charity event, or have invited the neighbors over for a drink.
Waiting doesn’t always precede bad things: death, depression, illness.
Waiting also heralds joy: birth, weddings, book offers.
I think, God, that what you are trying to say with all this “stay awake” and waiting stuff is that if we just live in the moment, like Henri Nouwen said, then we can trash our expectations and anxiety and worrying, because no body—well, maybe you—knows what’s coming. Trying to predict is time wasted, energy spoiled.
The poet T.S. Eliot nailed it–the message of Advent–when he describes how we are to wait:
I said to my soul be still, and wait without hope; for hope would be hope of the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith. But the faith, and the love, and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: so the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Help me to wait, God. Help me to dance in the stillness.