The season of Advent begins in the darkened days of late November, several weeks before Christmas. Advent is part of the Christian Year, a season of sustained focus on particular aspects of spiritual formation. It is a season that points beyond itself—to Christmas and the joy it promises.
Advent can seem a little strange to those unfamiliar with its traditions, themes, and prayers. Is it merely a historical exercise to pray the prayers of ancient Israel as they longed for the birth of their savior? Jesus has already come, hasn’t he? Most of us like Christmas; after all, it’s kind of like an extended birthday party for Jesus where we get the presents. But why spend weeks “anticipating” the birth of someone who’s already been born?
The answer to this question draws us into the central purpose of Advent and the kind of spiritual formation we undergo when we celebrate it. At the core of Advent’s purpose is the discipline of patient, watchful anticipation. In the season of Advent, we train ourselves for watching and waiting.
Most of us these days are pretty lousy at waiting. We live in a world whose entire modern economy is based on shrinking the space between feeling a desire and satisfying it. We expect our food to come quickly, the weekends can’t get here fast enough, we binge watch entire seasons of TV shows in a few nights, and even a few seconds of delay can cause us to abandon a web search in disgust. We want what we want and we want it now!
Even when our desires are good and holy, we are impatient for their satisfaction. We look around at our world and can clearly see its brokenness. Whether we look inside ourselves, at the lives of our family, friends, and neighbors, or at what’s happening in the wider world, we see the truth of Paul’s words: “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8) The world is not right. This world is not as it should be. God himself has told us that this is so, and very long ago he began working to do something about it. He has been at work, and is still at work—but that work is not yet finished. There is nothing we can do to speed it along, it will come in the time and measure chosen by God. We wait.
Waiting may seem like doing nothing, but a moment’s reflection reveals that waiting is actually hard work. We groan, aching for what we need to finally come to pass. And waiting for God to finish his work is a little like pregnancy: there is preparation to do, but most of the work doesn’t come from us; we must simply wait, and the expectation and eager need make the waiting feel like a kind of work, an active, watchful, restrained patience.
This waiting is fruitful. It enlarges our capacity to receive and enter the joy of Christmas. It right-sizes our perspective on our own efforts toward sanctification as we walk with God and submit to his rule. It widens our ability to experience joy even while we patiently endure trials, knowing that the day is surely coming when we will pass beyond the trial. It opens our eyes to see God’s promises fulfilled in ways we might miss were it not for a new alertness borne of the Holy Spirit, borne of waiting.
This is the season of Advent.
This season, will you watch and wait with us for the glory of God to be revealed?