Scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was written 30-40 years after Jesus’ death. His audience would have been Christians who were living in a difficult social and political time, a time of conflict. They were likely to be facing persecution because they were followers of Jesus. These early Christians took courage in Jesus’ warning to remain alert and watchful. It strengthened them to persevere through the sufferings they encountered.
By the 6th century, Advent was tied to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds as the judge of the world. It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas. In our contemporary church year Advent begins at the Vigil of the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew – sometime between November 27 and December 3rd. We stretched it to the max this year.
Like the disciples and the faithful in Mark’s community, we must also stay alert and watchful. Our faithfulness to God, and our experience of God’s faithful to us, through the good times as well as the difficult times, keeps us in a state of readiness for the coming of God in our daily lives and for Christ’s second coming. It is special time when we strive to counterbalance the challenges in our environment: noise, speed and busyness. Advent is a sacramental moment – an extended moment spanning 4 weeks. It is a time for increased prayer, observances of the beauty and the needs in our everyday environment, and a honing of the discipline to respond to what God places in our paths. It’s not a time to curl into ourselves, look at the pretty Christmas lights and dream of a “white Christmas with every Christmas card we write.”
Advent is certainly a time of waiting and of celebration and anticipation of Christ’s birth. And it’s more than that. It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated. It is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense. It is the between-time that Karl Barth speaks of when he writes: “Unfulfilled and fulfilled promises are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promise and in fact the same promise. If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise. This,” says Barth, “is the essence of Advent.”
The Christmas story reminds us that it was in the midst of the busy stop-over city of Bethlehem that God slipped visibly into our world: a squalling infant to a humble, unpretentious couple. In those days, Bethlehem was a place where business was conducted quickly, camels were exchanged, horses were watered, travelers would stop to have a meal and maybe spend a night. Sheep grazed on the hillsides, shepherds kept watch for hungry wolves and marauders on the take. Bethlehem’s fame was based on a has-been history … it was King David’s hometown.
It was here that the Christmas miracle happened … a God-moment that proves for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear that even a smelly cave can be heaven on earth – a sacred place – God’s house.
We have all had experiences of waiting … that’s part of all our lives. This season of Advent reminds us that waiting is often the cost of love: in waiting for someone, our own everyday business becomes almost meaningless as we anticipate, worry, and prepare for our loved one’s return. In waiting, we realize our own powerlessness; we realize our deepest hopes and needs; we realize the gift of the person we are awaiting is to us.
While it is difficult to keep the spirit of Advent in mind in the midst of holiday celebrations, shopping, lights and decorations, and joyful carols, Advent is intended to be a season of fasting, but not the penitential fasting we associate with Lent. You’ll notice the liturgical color is lavender, not the deep purple of Lent. Advent is anticipatory fasting of waiting, waiting for the glorious miracle of Christmas. This is fasting when you’re too excited to do anything else, except sit-on-the-the-edge of the your seat, listen for the sound of approaching footsteps, stare at the door knob so you’ll be the first to see it turn and you keep asking: “Is it time yet? Is He here?”
May our waiting for the coming of the Holy One this Christmas help us understand and carry on the mystery of compassionate and generous waiting. Don’t expect a dramatic vision but do try to become more conscious of the Christ coming through our doors, in the ones who enter our community room, our retreat space and share a meal with us. In our corporate commitment we pledge to be the embodiment of the compassion of Christ. And it is obvious from our visitors’ comments that this is one of our signature ministries. Our guests, and we who live here, know that our companions care for us … the question may be do we care about each other. One litmus test: until you know what hurts me, you cannot truly love me.“
We pray: fill our hearts with Advent hope so that we may learn to cope with the delays and disappointments we encounter with patience and wisdom. May a spirit of gratitude and humility guide us on our journey to your dwelling place, enabling us to endure, with joy, the costs of waiting for love, reconciliation, and peace.
What has been your most difficult experience of waiting? In the end how was your long vigil rewarded?
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress