Revised from the original posting on Dec 1, 2018
Advent is a season of watching and waiting, a time of abiding in expectant hope, confident in the coming of the King.
Advent is so much more than preparing for Christmas. The early days of Advent focus especially on the second coming of Jesus. Our watching and waiting for his coming is not static or sterile, sitting here idly until some future day when he eventually comes. Rather, theologians speak of an “already but not yet.” Christ has not yet come in glory, but he is already growing and bearing fruit in the lives of his holy ones.
There is a famous Advent homily in which Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) describes a third coming of Jesus, in between his birth at Bethlehem and his coming in glory. No, he is not talking about “the rapture,” but rather the coming of Jesus into the heart of every true believer. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him” (John 14:23).
This coming into our heart is a dynamic process of nurture and growth. As we abide in expectant hope, our desire for the Lord increases. That desire itself springs from a seed planted by the Lord. The more we desire his coming, the more our capacity to receive him grows. The greater our capacity, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more deeply we desire. And the cycle of “already but not yet” continues until he comes again.
Think upon the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Christ sows his Word. Some seeds fall on the path, others on rocky ground, others among thorns, and others into good soil. Advent is a time to become good soil, totally receptive, growing in faith and hope.
That is the sad irony of December in the modern world. In the midst of Advent, we are constantly exposed to commercialism and consumerism and unneeded busyness. The self-indulgence of “the season” stands in stark contrast with the penitent cry of John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord!” We can easily heap excessive expectations upon ourselves, thinking of all the things that we “have to get done.” Then we find ourselves too busy or stressed out to do any watching or waiting (except perhaps binge watching Netflix).
With God’s help, we can recognize some of the weeds and thorns in our heart, obstacles that need to be uprooted with firm resolve. We also have hard and dry places in our hearts, tough soil that needs the gentle dew of the Holy Spirit to soften and moisten, freeing us to become receptive, like Mary and Joseph.
Our free cooperation matters much. But in the end, God is the one who provides the growth and the fruit. We are called to abide in love. The watching and waiting is the most challenging part! We are so conditioned to expect instant gratification and easy results. The parable of the sower reminds us to be patient and receptive.
Henri Nouwen wrote often about our powerlessness, and how challenging it is for us to be humble and patient. We depend totally upon God for the growth – much like the farmer in the field. Nouwen offers the image of an impatient gardener periodically digging up the plant to check on its growth. That tactic definitely doesn’t work! We hate to wait. Our restless hearts resist and sabotage the Father’s rest. All the while he gazes upon us with delight, inviting us to trust that we are his beloved children.
The growth will happen on his timeline, as we learn to abide in him. The fruitfulness will come in due time, so long as there is steady growth. By contrast, we will wither and die if we cut ourselves off from the source of all growth.
Healthy Christian community helps so much. True Christian friends will notice what God is doing in us and encourage us. It is good to notice the growth and to praise him for it. That thankfulness and praise stirs up the desire of our heart all the more. There is no risk of pride when our heart is Christ-centered and full of praise.
Psalm 1 offers an image of the tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, putting out its roots to the stream, staying green amidst the drought, whose leaves never fade, prospering and bearing fruit. Contrast that with the ways of the wicked, who cling to fruitless desires. They are like the chaff that gets blown away.
It is easy – especially at this time of the year – to become anxious or overwhelmed and then flee into one of our “panic rooms” – reaching for our phone, grabbing extra food or drink, plunging into pleasures that don’t actually bring peace.
Instead, we can choose to be patient and gentle with ourselves. It is normal to feel unsettled during changes of seasons and when reconnecting with family. Instead of isolating ourselves, we can choose to stay present to our minds and bodies, present to Christ, and present to those around us. We can receive grace and grow in patience. The fruit will come in due time.
Advent has always been a favorite season of mine. It touches the deepest desires of the human heart. May God give each of us the courage to root out the weeds from our hearts. May he cultivate and soften the hard and unreceptive places. And may he help us to abide in expectant hope, watching and waiting patiently as Christ comes to us, gives us growth, and bears much fruit.