advent, not christmas (yet)
Advent is about waiting. The word literally means “coming” or “arrival.” Advent is about preparation in anticipation of something very familiar, yet we ultimately can’t know. Why? Revelation always holds an element of surprise.
Many grew up singing Christmas hymns throughout Advent. In the medieval world, there were no Christmas songs sung until Christmas day. Advent, the season of waiting, came before the season of celebration.
Long ago, the Christmas season began on Christmas day, It extended though the Epiphany – usually 10 days or so. “Christmastide" in the medieval world lasted until the end of January. There was a day called “Candlemas” in which everyone brought down their Christmas decorations.
The waiting of Advent is not an idea, but aims at a spiritual experience. You have to feel the anticipation of Advent to know what it means. It’s a pregnant mother kind of waiting. It’s a hope-filled waiting-for-someone-to-come-home kind of waiting. Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity. As the beginning of the liturgical year, we begin with a long wait.
This is waiting feels like:
Picture it. In a sea of teenagers, she stood waiting in line for the drinking fountain by the restrooms. It's a hot day. She was in line to fill her water bottle. When it was finally her turn, the water trickled like a well-used drinking fountain does. The stream slowed every time she heard a toilet flush. The bottle filled, but it seemed to take forever.
It was one of those things everyone, eventually, has to do. There’s no efficient or convenient way to do it and no one can do it for you. He had to renew his license plates.
He didn’t know anyone in the Department of Motor Vehicles that day. So alone, in a crowd, he waited. This amounted to waiting for the government to give you a colored sticker – an expensive and different colored sticker – other than the colored sticker you had the year before. Surrounded by strangers, he waited for the chance to pay for his expensive sticker. He continued to wait…wait his turn. The only person working behind the counter that day finally yelled out a number. “45!” His number was 68.
She was now sleeping with eight pillows...when she was able to sleep at all. She was constantly tired, but couldn’t sleep because she got up every few hours. It was like the baby was sitting on her bladder. This one was her first. He was due in four weeks. All she could think about was having this baby...and chocolate...and for some reason, pickles.
Waiting is hard. So, what’s the point of sacramentalizing, spiritualizing, and sanctifying waiting?
I think the world has given up on the spiritual meaning of waiting. Consumers don’t want to wait. Waiting causes wants to grow stronger, more intense. Retailers, radio-stations, and advertisers focus on ramping up for Christmas once Advent comes around. Christmas is commercialized. Consumerism has turned Advent into a four-week-long Christmas Eve.
But, that’s not why monks, nuns, priests, and theologians invented Advent and the Christian calendar. Like Lent, Advent is a waiting time of preparation and anticipation. It is an alternative to the virtue of consumption: impatience.
Long ago, no songs about Jesus, wise men, or salvation were sung until Christmas day. Like a mother’s first birth, Advent was about spending time in the unknown. Advent aims at wonder, longing, and anticipation for the fulfillment of a promise…a great arrival. For Mary, it was the birth of Jesus. For Israel, it was the arrival of the Messiah. For my Grandmother, it was about the coming of Zion. For us, it's waiting for ourselves - the long-awaited ones - who can heal a nation and restore their world.
So, what are we waiting for?
What are you waiting for?
What’s worth the wait?
Advent loses its meaning when it loses its wonder. This can happen when we rush toward Christmas without dwell in - dwelling in, feeling, it, taking in - what it’s for.
To spend time in Advent, I'm thinking what my heart is most deeply longing, thirsting, and hoping for. In a torn, isolated, and broken world, I want to think about what a coming messiah means this year for me, my community, my loved ones, and the world. That’s what Advent is about. What's worth the wait?