The season of Advent has always been one of my favorites. It is a time to be quiet and to commit more time to listening; a time to revel in the power of simple flames atop purple candles, casting out the darkness; a time to really ponder all the ways God's presence in our midst reveals itself; a time to prepare for the coming of Christ in ways unexpected, beautiful and ordinary.
And then, there's the jostling of all that beauty amidst the simultaneous season of hustle and bustle, a time when academic years are at their most stressful; when the plans to cook, bake, shop, wrap, write, mail, decorate, trim, carol, and host seem to dominate the calendar; when "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is rare but "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" hits every radio station.
Is this a societal critique and an attempt to secure moral high ground around the season of Advent? No, of course not. I'm as big a fan of singing "Jingle Bells" while trimming the tree as I am of playing the St. Louis Jesuits' Advent album "Gentle Night" every day of December in a dimly lit chapel. It's just that I find myself this Advent wishing there wasn't such a struggle around becoming still and being truly present.
Sure, it can happen in moments — like when one of my friends mentions that she can't stay to help clean up after an event because it seems her brother, whose health is failing, might not live through the week. What? Gone are the worries of whether the coffee will run out, and evaporated are the concerns that these shoes are really uncomfortable. In the span of a heartbeat, I can be present fully to this person who has just dared to expose her hurting heart.
Or when, as I run down the hallway to yet another committee meeting, a high school student cradles her hand shyly and asks, "Do you by chance have a Band-Aid?" For whatever might have prompted her to ask, I thank God for prompting me to hear, so as to help her find the school nurse who could clean and tend to a gash much larger than any Band-Aid could ever cover. Sure, being truly present and responsive can happen in moments. So why can't it be more of the norm?
We're getting ready to celebrate the gift of the Incarnation, the gift of God-with-us in human flesh and bone. That happened all in a moment — or better yet, in a series of moments. The moment when Mary said, "Yes," the moment when Jesus the Christ was born into the human family, the moment when his human life ended only to open the door to an eternal life for all humanity. Each of those was a simple moment, a moment filled with import and life-altering ramifications. Each of those was a moment in which a promise was made.
But it took some time for those promises to reach fulfillment, and maybe that's part of what Advent is all about. Promises made by God for us and for our greater happiness and holiness can take some time before they reach fulfillment. Mary and Joseph lived a long time with that little baby before he started to manifest anything even remotely God-like, it seems. The moment of Christ's death was not immediately followed by the moment of his resurrection. And in the long three-day span in between, there was much room for disciples and family alike to wonder about the veracity of God's promises, I'm sure. Promises made and promises fulfilled don't always happen in quick succession.
And in the span in between, we have Advent: the waiting time, when we dedicate four weeks and lots of prophetic Scriptures every year to the assurance that, "'I have promised, and I will do it,' says the Lord" (Ezekiel 37:14). It's a comfort to hear God promise that we are loved, that God will never leave us, that every hair of our head is counted, that, as Julian of Norwich wrote, "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well."
That is a comfort, yes. The challenge is in remaining present and faithful to the trust walk that occurs in between the promise and its actualization.
Lord, help us to wait for you with hope and trust this Advent, and help us to believe that in the moments of each and every day, you will hold us in tender love and mercy, being present to us even when we fail to be present to you in our midst.
[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has an M.A. in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial and vocation director for the United States Province of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart.]