Watching and waiting in Advent

“Be vigilant at all times” (Luke 21:36)

The first Gospel reading of Advent begins not with the Christmas story, but rather with a kind of continuation of what we’ve been hearing all week: reflections on the end of times. I’m always a little wary of writing on eschatology, because who but God knows exactly what that will look like. Not most people, and certainly not me. I’m lucky if I know what we will eat for dinner by the time I leave for work each morning.

However, Jesus’ words to us about how to act while we wait  make a little more sense to me. The above phrase is especially striking: “Be vigilant.” The Greek verb here translated as being vigilant is agrupneo, or to be wakeful—literally, not- be asleep. Advent is a time that we can try to be more wakeful, watchful, as we await God.

Much of contemporary cultural hype around Christmas is both hypnotic and hyperactive at the same time. Excessive shopping for gifts, Christmas music that starts right after Thanksgiving, commercialism have become the almost de rigeur complaints of a Catholic blogger. But it’s less that the gifts or the music are so problematic as that they stand in our way of getting to what matters: awakened hearts that truly await the Lord.

As I think back on instances of everyday wakefulness, I think of times when my children were sick and I had to check on them frequently to assure myself that their fevers had not spiked too high, waiting for a relative arriving on a late plane from out of state, or staying up late to try to glimpse a meteor shower.

Although I wish I could say I were patient in all of these circumstances, I must confess that I am often not good at waiting. Waiting for Christmas gifts? No problem. Waiting for God’s action when my timetable is different? Much, much harder. In other words, true wakefulness includes a capacity to wait. And waiting requires trust in God.

In Advent, we must strike a kind of balance between, on the one hand, being ready, and on the other hand, not prematurely anticipating when or in what way God will act. Wakefulness requires an openness to God’s will and God’s action and not only our own willfulness, yet enough attention to be able to be responsive and cooperative with God’s call. Advent is a kind of surrender of control, without also surrendering all responsibility, laying down our defenses to follow God into the unknown.