November 27, 2021 Essay: Joyful Anticipation
Waiting can be hard. Or at least it’s hard for me. I remember Christmases when I was a kid, standing with my sister and cousins, staring at the tree, or, more truthfully, at the presents underneath the tree. The mystery of what could possibly be in the various packages was almost more than we could stand. We eagerly awaited finishing dinner so we could tear into the gifts and discover what awaited us. More recently, I find other sorts of waiting to be challenging. If I’m running late on my way somewhere, waiting for the light to change at the crosswalk or waiting for a train to arrive at the subway station seems to take an eternity. Unlike waiting to open a Christmas gift, there isn’t any mystery to waiting for a light to change or a train to arrive. Even though I know exactly how those periods of waiting will end, it’s still hard.
Advent is all about waiting. On some level, we all know the object and destination of our waiting. In just under four weeks, Christmas will be here! Year in and year out, Advent is a season of preparing ourselves for the birth of Christ. This is a season with which we are very familiar, with the predictable and comforting trappings of Advent wreaths, purple and pink candles, Advent calendars, and Advent devotionals. Advent also brings other annual undertakings such as Christmas shopping, Christmas concerts, and gatherings with friends and family. Many of these activities, whether spiritual, more mundane, or somewhere in between, may well be part of our routines as we make our way through these four weeks. Finally, the end of Advent is never a surprise. Much of what we do, expect, and await in Advent is predictable and part of long-established routines. However, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have some surprises in store for us in the midst of our waiting.
During my first year as a Jesuit, my spiritual director recommended some spiritual reading to me, a book titled Advent of the Heart, by Fr. Alfred Delp, SJ. I have reread this book every Advent since 2011 and have recommended it to more people than I can count, now including all of you. Delp was a German Jesuit who spoke out against the Nazis and was later inaccurately accused of involvement in an assassination attempt against Hitler. Advent of the Heart is a collection of his homilies and other writings on Advent, a season he loved throughout his life. The collection ends with the Advent homilies Delp wrote in 1944, as he was imprisoned and awaiting his execution. Delp describes Advent as a time of being shaken awake to a renewed and deepened relationship with God.
In Advent of the Heart, Delp also writes about the figures of Advent, the people with whom we wait during this season of preparation and being shaken awake. He includes John the Baptist, Gabriel, and Mary among the people with whom we travel through Advent toward Christmas. Here at St. Ignatius Loyola, our theme for this Advent is “Waiting with Mary.” I say with full confidence, Fr. Delp would heartily approve.
As we wait for Christmas, as we go through the routines and rituals of this Advent, how might God be trying to shake us awake? Even though we already know that Advent ends with the celebration of the birth of Christ, how can we, in our hearts, reclaim some of the mysterious and surprising joy of God-made-flesh?
Waiting can be hard. May this season of expectant waiting find us open and awake, like Mary, to whatever surprises God has in store.
– Fr. Daniel N. Gustafson, Pastoral Year Priest