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Advent: Hurry Up and Wait?

Advent and Triumph of Christ by Hans Memling, 1480 [Alte Pinakothek, Munich]
Today’s Mass – and, indeed, the entirety of Advent – seem to throw at us two contradictory messages. The Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent always exhorts us to vigilance: Stay awake (Mt 24:42). . . .Be watchful, be alert. . . .Watch! (Mk 13: 33,37). . . .Be vigilant at all times (Lk 21:34). Similarly, the Prefaces for Advent describe us as those who watch for that day and are watchful in prayer. But then the collect for today’s Mass prays, not for the capacity to wait and watch, but for the resolve to run forth to meet Christ. Other prayers in Advent beg for a similar grace: to hasten. . .press forward. . .go out. . .and set out in haste.

So do we watch or hasten? Wait or run forth? Of course, both responses to the Lord are necessary for the Christian life. Both are necessary for hope, the virtue characteristic of Advent. And these two responses, in fact, depend on one another.

First, vigilance – which means to wait and watch. The virtue of hope gives us the capacity to wait for the Lord. Indeed, we need this virtue precisely because Christ has not yet returned. We wait for Him to answer our prayers, to complete His work within us, and ultimately to come again. And we don’t know when that will be. This waiting emphasizes that it all depends on His initiative. He is the Lord of history. He alone determines the time of His coming. He came once in the fullness of time and now we await Him to return at an hour we do not expect.

The exhortation to vigilance and the virtue of hope are proportioned to one of our deepest wounds: impatience. We must abide by His schedule, not ours. God has given us time as the opportunity to grow in trust as we await His coming. Yet it feels like a burden to us. We reject His gift of time by refusing to wait and by taking things into our own hands. Unable to wait, Abram and Sarai connived to produce descendants by the slave girl Hagar. Israel’s impatience at the foot of Mount Sinai prompted Aaron to craft for them the golden calf and thus lead them into apostasy. Saul refused to wait for Samuel any longer and so lost the kingship. And so on.

We get into a lot of mischief when we cannot wait and watch for the Lord, when we expect Him to conform to our schedule. We then assume control and seek to accomplish here and now what the Lord promised to do on that Day. We chase after secular, worldly messiahs to satisfy our longings. Without vigilance, we slowly but surely make peace with the world, settle down, and slouch into our own vices. With good reason the Church exhorts us to wait and watch.

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