Anyone who has ever had, or spent any time with, children knows that the act of waiting isn’t a strong suit for that demographic. From the road trip cliché “Are we there yet?” to the many manifestations of toddler impatience, waiting for something to happen can lead to downright despair for our little ones.
It’s not just children who struggle with waiting, of course. Our instant-gratification culture, compounded by the supercomputers ever at our fingertips, has turned the concept of waiting into something foreign and unpalatable for most adults, too.
Yet here we are again at Advent, a season that is defined by marking time, by counting the days until the Church celebrates the coming of Our Lord. It mirrors, in miniature, the waiting that each of us is doing for the return of Jesus Christ at the end of time — a waiting to which we often don’t pay nearly enough heed. This annual emphasis on waiting is a great gift of the Church, when we remember to actually take advantage of it.
It may be helpful to consider what can get in the way of this “active waiting.” A good place to start is by examining the things we gravitate toward when we have a few minutes of “downtime.” Do we pick up the phone and scroll through social media? Do we flip on the TV? Do we gossip with (or about) a friend? Do we make the most of those moments that are ripe for intentional and active waiting? Or do we let them just pass us by in a flurry of distraction?
An overcrowded Advent schedule, or one that begins the Christmas celebration in early December, can also get in the way of the expectation that should dominate the season. With the arrival of COVID last year, many of us embraced a scaled-back holiday calendar and found it to be a welcome change from the typical overdrive of the season. We should not forget the lessons learned from that time.
Thankfully, the Church’s traditions provide us with plenty to help us embrace the waiting that is part and parcel of Advent. The Church is rich in those things that help us slow down and reflect on the passage of time during Advent, starting with the basics: an Advent wreath in one’s home. This traditional and simple-to-set-up item is a visual and striking reminder of the passage of time during the season of preparation and anticipation. When lit intentionally during dinner each evening, it’s a way for the whole family to reflect upon where the Church is in the Advent journey and to savor each passing week.
A spiritually oriented Advent calendar (not that we don’t enjoy the occasional “cheese or chocolate of the day” indulgence) can also help slow the pace of the season, offering an opportunity for daily reflection on Scripture or a piece of the Christmas narrative. Opening the calendar each day offers a natural moment to pause during what can be a busy and exciting season.
Remembering the course of salvation history through the use of a Jesse tree can be both entertaining and educational. As each ornament is hung, the family can reflect upon a moment that led to the Incarnation — to that moment when God humbled himself and became one of us in order to save us.
There are other, simple things one can do to embrace active waiting. Bake cookies, yes, but save the eating until Christmas. Put out your Nativity scene, yes, but don’t place Baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Instead of hosting a party during Advent, consider holding one on Epiphany.
As Father Joel Sember writes in “Oriens,” his prayer guide through the Advent and Christmas seasons (OSV, $18.95): “We all struggle with Advent. The Church is telling us to slow down, but the world is telling us, ‘Hurry up.’ We rush around preparing for the birth of Jesus. We look forward to the big ‘Aha’ moment waiting for us at Christmas. And we always seem to miss out somehow.”
Let’s not miss out on Advent this year. It doesn’t take much effort to reclaim these weeks as a season of anticipation. It simply takes a little planning and a lot of intentionality. Christmas is worth the wait.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young