Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Patience and watchful waiting are an essential component of our growing in faith and trust in God. Not just in Advent, of course, but that’s one good reason for an Advent before Christmas.

Although the Advent season is so short — less than four weeks in the liturgical calendar — its spirit is really the defining attitude of the Christian toward God, not only as we prepare for Christmas, but in our relationship to our own future.

What we will do with the rest of our lives, what choices we will make, how our relationships will be formed and evolve, are all defined and shaped by how and if we wait for God to come to us and illumine our path. As Bishop Robert Barron has challenged us: time to get rid of the ego-drama! God is our ultimate destiny, and this means not only our encounter with the Lord at the end of our lives and our hope for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven, but also in following the path that leads there: the only path to heaven is through this world.

The Advent message that we have heard in these days — if we are listening — is that God comes to those who listen and wait. Signs are given and voices are raised that only those who watch and wait can notice. We can “miss” God if we do not watch and wait. We can “do” Christmas and miss Christ! And without Christ, what’s the point of Christmas really?

Magi who appear on the scene as the Christmas narrative unfolds followed astrological indications that, according to the science of their time, appeared in the East in the form of a stellar configuration. We do not know from where in the East the Magi came, when they started noticing or how long they traveled, but it is likely that they were preparing quite a while before Christ was born.

Waiting for God to enter our lives, for his presence, his response to our prayer, his direction, may take longer than we want. But the connection is already made, the relationship begun, simply by the willingness to ask, watch and wait.

Longing for the presence of a loved one is itself a sign of the relationship, especially if the loved one also longs for that presence. With God, we can be sure that for everything we ask or long for from God, there is a passion and a longing on God’s part for us. Our spiritual growth is as much a practice and an exercise — in all dimensions of those words — as it is a gift received. In fact, the yearning is itself a blessing, much like hunger and kitchen sounds and aromas prepare us to enjoy a good meal.

Yes, grace descends on us, grace upon grace. But grace builds on nature and our nature as humans demands choice — our consent and cooperation. Why so? Because God made us in his image and likeness to be free and creative. Therefore, as we wait for God, God also waits for us. This is what lovers do. They wait for and wait on each other. They do not grasp and control. They hope and let be.

This is worth pondering. God imparts peace to those who watch and wait. The slow burn of the yearning for the loved one, which is part of the experience of loving someone, itself strengthens the relationship, first of all, by the mutual gift of the time spent. The more time we spend pondering the beloved, thinking of ways to share that love and longing for the reunion, the response of the loved one, the deeper the connection seems to grow.

In a small way, we might experience this when we begin to imagine what kind of gift we will give on a birthday, for an anniversary or, as we do in this season, for a Christmas present. In a sense Christmas already seems to come as we are preparing for it. The more time we spend preparing, the more there will be to enjoy when it comes. To be frank, the “instant Christmas” we often see when the tree goes up, the lights are strung and the Muzak starts to fill the air can take some of the wind out of the waiting. Like children who rush to lick the icing off the cake, we can miss the meal, the real deal of fellowship and a shared meal. Good wine should be sipped, not gulped down.

Rushing Christmas creates a marathon of stress. Even if this is happening again this year, or worse, one feels “behind” and now pressed to “catch up,” it’s not too late to relax, to let go and let God. It is often when we are most anxious, most stressed out, most at our wits end that we are best able to appreciate an offer of peace. If we let it happen.

It is often the experience of being out of control, unable to take the next step, that we are most able to accept the gift of the presence of the loved one, who alone can pick us up. Can it be any other way? Love is never in control. It is by nature free, undeserved, unmanageable. Yet to experience its power is to feel the world on fire.

The fear and insecurity that so many of us have felt in the political events, the pandemic, the economic uncertainties of recent years have dashed the hopes of many for a better world. So much violence and upheaval has filled the airwaves. Within the same household, there is hope and despair that this will change in some future election, for the better or the worse. Surfing the waves like a roller coaster, we are tossed in an ocean of uncertainty. But there are precedents. Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples as the storm gathers around their fragile boat, walking on the water, calming the roiling seas, bringing peace to their frightened souls.

This is always God’s way. The Lord will not abandon those who trust in him, who wait for him to come. We need to practice watching and waiting, for that is also what God is doing for us, like the loving father, scanning the horizon for his prodigal son, who was so busy wasting his inheritance until he had thoroughly exhausted himself. It doesn’t have to be that dramatic, but the sooner we realize that there are things we need that we cannot give to ourselves, cannot make and cannot earn, we begin to experience the eternal joy of Christmas, of the God who comes to us.

We may recall Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” how Scrooge had lost all perspective on life by his obsessive addiction to his money and “business.” He had missed his own humanity, and that of the people in his life. This Christmas let’s let God push our reset button. Whatever we are “tied up” in or is tying us down, we can open our heart to the Lord who comes to us to save us from ourselves, our opinions or viewpoints on the world, and let him be our life, our love, our future. God may just have a better perspective on them all than we can even imagine.