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How not to “wait” for Christmas

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We could be forgiven this Advent for slipping into a mindset of "waiting" for Christmas — for counting down to the Big Day. After all, this year has felt like one long wait: for shelves to be restocked, for schools and offices to reopen, for a vaccine ... and a return to "normal."

And if we did adopt this kind of impatient, let’s-get-on-with-it-already mindset, we would be dead wrong.

"This isn’t a time of just waiting for your wedding day," a priest and dear friend, Father Francis Martin, told me a few days after I got engaged. "Your novitiate has begun. Prepare well." And by the unforgettable expression on his face, he wasn’t kidding around. 

"Waiting" in Advent is much closer to the kind of waiting Father Martin was talking about. Or it resembles the wait for the birth of your firstborn, or the lead-up to day one of your first job. At some level, we get what Father Martin is saying. We know that it would be foolish — even an injustice to our future spouse, newborn or employer — to merely "wait out" or "countdown" the days leading up to our wedding, birth of our firstborn or new job. 

Three months before the arrival of our firstborn, most of the plumbing in the fixer-upper house we had just bought wasn’t even functional. A dumpster occupied our front yard and permits covered our front windows. I think back to that caliber of "waiting" for my daughter’s birth. I’ve never worked so hard, and work — in preparation for my beautiful little girl — was never so effortless. At some level it wasn’t about work: it was about rejoicing in the time I had to prepare for this radical transformation.  

Your wedding day. Your child’s due date. Can we ever imagine squandering the weeks leading up to these big days by just counting them down and losing ourselves in food, drink and shopping?

These weeks are so much more. The days of our novitiate are filled with expectant work, setbacks, discoveries. The hours — even the minutes — are pregnant with meaning, signs, hope. After all, we know that we will soon begin a new way of life. On one day, soon, we will wake up, and the door leading back to our novitiate — the "normal" we now know — will forever be closed. We are choosing new life.  

"The greatest folly with the season of Advent is that we reduce it to a page-a-day (chocolate-a-day?) countdown calendar to Christmas," my friend Mark Voorheis told me recently. "So our entire focus is on the end, and not on where we are in the moment."

And no wonder. In this unkindest of years, we may admittedly feel a strong tug to forego our Advent "novitiate" and instead choose the chocolate-a-day, fast-track focus on the secularized "end" of Christmas: a sensory-overloaded debauch. But we are invited to so much more.

"If we can just realize that we are currently ‘in’ the day the Lord has made," Mark continued, "then we will be where God intended us to be this Advent: getting ready for the Lord’s coming today. Not tomorrow. Now. Preparing for the Lord, today." 

Amen. This Advent is fundamentally not about waiting or countdowns. This Advent is about rejoicing in the time we have now to prepare for the radical new life which will be ours when the Son of God joins us in our humanity.

In this austere Advent, we get to decide how we will spend our last days before our new life begins. Will we choose the chocolate-a-day countdown or actually show up to our own novitiate? Will we squander the hours or prepare in joyful hope? Will we choose normal or lean toward the new life which awaits? Will we foul the days with yet more sin or seek mercy in the confessional? Will the newborn Jesus arrive on that holy day with a dumpster still occupying our front yard, and permits covering our windows? 

Awake. The true light is coming into the world. The glory of the Word made flesh. Our novitiate has begun. May we prepare well.

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Community (trinityhousecommunity.org).  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020