We inhabit a world that prizes getting what we want as quickly as possible.
Who isn’t in awe of Amazon Prime’s magical powers to ship just about anything anywhere in 48 hours? What tech company doesn’t sell itself on the allure of being infinitesimally faster than its competitor? The draw of speed touches nearly everything, from instant oatmeal to a Tinder-lubricated hookup culture. To quote Freddie Mercury of recently renewed fame: we want it all and we want it now.
Every year, a quaint, out-of-date tradition reminds me that there’s something to be learned and gained from waiting. Advent — a season expressly dedicated to waiting well — hasn’t enjoyed quite the same commercial and cultural success as the Christmas feast it prepares us for, but every year it calls me back to something important.
What might there be for us in this season of Advent, which is so easily overlooked? What would it look like to do Advent well?
It’s not easy to practice waiting during the Advent season as stores giddily start hawking their Christmas wares seemingly earlier and earlier every year. The work of Advent happens inside us, which is always difficult to attend to, but doubly so when there’s so much work to do in this busy season. We pack Christmas parties with co-workers and friends into the waning weeks of the calendar on top of the rush to meet our end-of-year deadlines.
Meanwhile, in darkened churches hang the aching, spare notes of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” awkwardly out of tune with the merriment and flurry of our coffee shops and grocery stores. What is this season of quiet waiting calling us to?
The key to unlocking the backwards practice of Advent lies in the difference between passive waiting and active preparing. There would be little reason to simply wait around for what we know we already want and would prefer to just go ahead and have now. (Eggnog and Christmas presents? Yes, please!) The genius of Advent is that it calls us to approach this season as a time to actively prepare — to re-train our desires so that we might receive more than what we would have otherwise thought to ask for.
As C.S. Lewis puts it: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us… We are far too easily pleased.”
The surprising power of waiting was impressed upon me during a time of prolonged uncertainty several years ago. My wife and I fell in love years before we started dating. We would have spared ourselves a good deal of angst had we started dating much sooner, but we each had some crucial interior work to do first. When we later said “yes” to the opportunity to begin our relationship, we did so as freer and more mature versions of ourselves. In hindsight, I can see that those years of waiting were not a wasted delay — they prepared me more fully for marriage.
Our modest attempts at waiting in real life and on the practice field of Advent point ultimately to God’s own patience. Yes, Advent is about preparing to celebrate Jesus’ arrival at Christmas. But that already happened 2,000 years ago. Advent isn’t about waiting for Christmas morning so much as it is about waking up each day to discover more fully God’s presence in our midst.
Perhaps it is not us who does the real waiting in this season. Perhaps it is God who is waiting for us.