I don’t know about you, but I remember quite vividly the wiggly anticipation with which I greeted Christmas Eve as a child. I remember dressing up in my new Christmas dress (often a red one which was a favorite color even back then) and my annual pair of black patent leather Mary Jane shoes (which I loved). We would pile in the car and arrive even earlier than usual at St. Mary Catholic Church in Omaha, Nebraska. We came early so that we could get our usual pew, which was about 7 rows back. We were typically early arrivers and would usually be among the first to get there; on Christmas Eve, though, the church was bustling with unusual activity. The priest and altar boys would be carrying around the large candles and other special liturgical accoutrements. Others would be putting the finishing touches on the nativity scene that had been pulled out from its storage space for the first time. This visual tornado of activity would only slightly distract from the visions of Christmas presents dancing in my head.
The imagination of gifts was intensified because I knew that I didn’t have much time left to wait. After mass, we would go home, eat a simple meal and then open our presents Christmas Eve. As a kid, I LOVED this practice. I frequently boasted to my friends that WE got to open our presents earlier than they did. My mother said this had become our tradition because SHE had woken her parents up in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning too many times and they just got tired of it. (And wanted to sleep in, I suspect.)
I certainly understand the strategy of opening presents on Christmas Eve; I’m not really in favor of it as an adult. (My family now opens presents on Christmas morning, making my nephew wait until everyone is up of their own accord.) If you bypass the anticipation and the excited anxiety that comes with waiting, I think you miss something from the experience. The waiting, in some ways, is the point. The delicious anticipation is almost better than the presents themselves.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus,” which means arriving. If something is arriving, like the great gift of the Christ child, we probably shouldn’t just skip over the waiting and launch right into Christmas songs. We should settle into the uncomfortable, anticipatory time, finding a way to prepare ourselves for the next mysterious thing, the unknown.
Waiting isn’t always, or even often, pleasant. Sometimes the things we anticipate — results from medical tests, the grade on a test we think we have failed, waiting for the elimination of a job, or waiting for a loved one to emerge (or not) from a serious illness — are less-than-joyous presents.
Waiting is truly a gift, regardless of the circumstances. It allows us time to imagine and accept the outcome of our waiting. “But about that day and hour no one knows … Therefore you also must be ready, … For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24: 36, 44) In the gospel passage from this weeks lectionary (Matthew 24:36-44), the gospel writer describes the shock that must have been felt upon victims of the flood in Noah’s time. They were eating and drinking and carrying on their “normal” lives, then the flood came, wiping them out before they knew what hit them.
People have used this text to make Jesus out to be some kind of cosmic grim reaper, ready to steal some people to heaven in the night, while leaving others behind. Or others would use it to remind us to live as if everyday is our last. These are valid interpretations. However, I’m wondering if we aren’t missing some of the depth of this text if we stay there. Perhaps Jesus beckons us to settle into the uncomfortable, unstable reality of life. For anyone who has lived for any period of time knows that these sudden shocks, these changes, these happenings that turn lives inside out are really the norm. Being settled and stable is always an illusion, a fleeting moment of calm or happiness that gets thrown away as easily and swiftly as the Christmas Day wrapping paper.
If we aren’t ready for them, these world-altering events can make it hard to see meaning, purpose and love and joy in life. It’s easy to question God’s “plan.” It’s even easier to cast aside God altogether and say you want nothing to do with this kind of God. Maybe God doesn’t have a plan, at least not like the ones we would make with neat lists and spreadsheets and calendars. The world is simply a tumultuous place, filled with unexpected happenings that WILL turn our lives inside out. The insideout-ness is really what is normal and should be expected. Our job, our spiritual discipline, is to look for signs of new life, love, joy, kindness in the midst of it all.
Where have you seen God in the midst of chaotic moments in your life? Have you ever felt the power and necessity of waiting?