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Don’t Stop Waiting Just Yet

December 22, 2012

As the holiday spirit builds to a crescendo in Rome, it seems that we have skipped the last few days of Advent and entered directly into Christmas. Enormous evergreens tower in the piazzas near the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica, their glittery globes reflecting the red, white and green lights strung across neighboring buildings. People greet one another with “Buon Natale!” in the streets. The big Christmas movie is displayed on billboards all over the city, with a tough-looking Santa Clause squinting at the passersby, the words “Naughty” and “Nice” tattooed on his crossed arms.  In St. Peter’s square the Nativity set is still covered up waiting to be revealed on Christmas eve; maybe the only visible sign that Advent isn’t quite over yet. That, and the gift-shopping. Hordes of people inspired by last-minute panic.

Who waits until the last minute to buy gifts anyway? Really. What kind of . . .

All right, I admit I am a last-minute gift giver. But it’s not my fault — it’s the season. Advent is supposed to teach us to wait. And I do wait, all the way until the last nanoseconds of Christmas Eve (sometimes) before dashing into the streets and dodging Fiats and Vespas in search of that perfect, and probably sold-out, present. If it weren’t for the soothing prayers urging silence and watchfulness, or the patient marking off each week with a candle, I could have the thing bought, wrapped, and tree-ed by St. Nicholas Day. Plus, Christmas is supposed to be twelve days long. So what’s wrong with giving the gift on the third day, or the eleventh day? My thoughts exactly.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re the one getting the present) I can’t get away with arguing like that. Not just about the gift-giving, either. Despite the hang-ups, there is something about waiting an entire month for a single day which adds a mystical flair to the whole business. No matter how we look forward to Christmas — whether as a family get-together, or a chance to get gifts, or as a spiritual reality — all of us willingly put off the special moment for twenty-four days.

And it really is only a moment. Our families gather for a morning and an evening, gifts are exchanged, Mass celebrated, and the Christ-child is laid reverently in the manger scene. The magic hour comes and passes almost before we are aware it is upon us. Suddenly we are saying our good-bye’s — putting our gifts on shelves or in drawers — and looking around at a world in which God has been made human, although it is hard to see exactly how. We had waited so expectantly, ready to seize onto the sacred reality once it appeared. Instead, the holy joy comes stealthily and leaves stealthily, and we are touched for instant, and our lives become a patient waiting once again.

Our God is elusive. But He does come. We have seen His shadow in the doorway, His gleaming eyes in the candle-flame, His breath scattering the snow in the darkened fields. If Advent teaches us to wait, it also teaches us to hope, hope with patience, because the best things in life cannot be grasped — only welcomed when they do, unexpectedly, arrive.

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From → Musings

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