The season of Advent, that begins today, was introduced to the Church’s calendar in late antiquity as a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for the celebration of Christmas. In the early Middle Ages, Advent was extended to a length of forty days, but was later reduced to the four-week calendar we observe today. For quite a long time, the regimen of fasting was quite stringent, requiring Catholics to fast three days each week. This practice ceased, but the penitential character of Advent remained. Many of you remember when Advent was almost identical to Lent in its penitential practices.
The purpose of fasting and doing penance was to prepare a congregation for the celebration of the Lord’s birth. At one point in the Middle Ages, the weeks of Advent were numbered as a countdown; Advent began with the Fourth Sunday of Advent and counted down to the First Sunday of Advent which was followed immediately by Christmas.
Advent no longer has a penitential character, but it is still described as preparation for Christmas. Today, we still count the weeks of Advent, from one to four. Advent Calendars and Advent Wreaths were invented for the purpose of keeping track of the season’s passing. We are encouraged to cultivate an attitude of hopeful expectation for the Savior’s birth. The hopeful character of Advent begins to be unveiled in this Sunday’s Scripture readings and is revealed very plainly in the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent.
I remain unconvinced. Who wants to wait for Christmas? Couldn’t we just dive right into the gift giving and gift getting? More to the point, why would we want to wait for anything? A friend of mine is fond of saying that he refuses to buy green bananas or to stand in line at the grocery store cash register. He sees no valid reason to wait, and I sympathize with his point of view.
Currently, there is an even greater reason not to delay gratification for our legitimate desires. We’ve endured two and a half years of restrictions due to the Covid19 pandemic. It seems an appropriate time to skip all the waiting and go directly to some rejoicing. As tempting as that idea sounds, I’d like to propose an alternative approach to Advent.
The attitude of hopeful expectation that Advent tries to inspire has a very positive value. This season is meant to be a reminder of the Second Coming of the Risen Lord, and we are wise to be prepared for that great day. On a more immediate level, however, counting down to Christmas can be a very transformative experience.
Everyone loves to complain about the crazed, hectic pace of traffic on local roads. Immediately after complaining about the situation, everyone gets into a car and drives as if the back seat is on fire. Everyone loves to complain about the dour nature of television news programming and then, everyone watches the daily slow-motion train-wreck that is broadcast media. Everyone loves to complain about relatives, friends, and neighbors, and then, everyone engages in the same behaviors that, moments ago, merited energetic complaints about others. Advent might offer something to help us live constructively with all the events we consider to be social ills.
I think that the world, and our individual lives, might be very different if we made a conscious effort to cultivate the Christian virtue of patience. There are a great many things lacking in our society and in our world; near the top of the list of missing goods is the virtue of patience. The manic pace of traffic is a physical manifestation of the absence of patience. Constant complaining is another. Perhaps the most destructive consequence of our society’s lack of patience are the harsh judgments we are quick to heap on one another. At its core, our lack of patience with the world and the people around us is due, I think, to our lack of patience with ourselves.
Advent is an opportunity to practice patience. The (roughly) four weeks of Advent are a calendar of patience. The Scripture readings for Sunday build slowly to a peaceful resolution of new birth and new hope. Advent invites us to accept lovingly our faults, particularly our impatience, as well as the faults of others.
I find waiting to be of questionable value; I would be happy to fast-forward the clock to Christmas day. Patience, however, is not the same as waiting. Patience is the merciful and forgiving acceptance of the unavoidable limitations involved in human existence. For that reason, patience is necessary.
Patience is also sanctifying. To be patient with one’s own limitations allows for the possibility of being patient with others and doing so is an expression of Divine love toward the world.
Advent reminds us that we are still waiting for the Lord’s Second Coming and the consummation of the world. While we wait, we enjoy God’s patience by which God allows us to repent and reform our lives. The appropriate response to that experience is to extend the same Divine patience to all those around us. In my opinion, waiting has a very limited value but patience has an infinite value. For the next four weeks, let’s make a concerted effort to practice the virtue of patience, to see the world from God’s point of view, and to be transformed by the experience of letting the world move a little closer to its perfection in Christ our Risen Savior.