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How Much Longer? Are We There Yet?

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Canonry of St. Leopold - published on 12/11/14

Rejoice in the Lord always for He is come and He's coming soon.

“How much longer?” “Are we there yet?”

With these two questions I plagued my parents on every car ride, every vacation as a child. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Back then, of course, there were no video games to distract and numb children (or adults) and certainly no televisions in cars, so we talked a lot, and I did a lot of reading and looking out the window and thinking and wondering (not so bad, when you think of it). But, still, the question would come, sometimes from boredom with the trip but more often out of excitement for the destination: “How much longer? Are we there yet?”

My father’s answer was quick, invariable and of absolutely no help; whether our goal was just around the bend or still two states away, he would unfailingly answer my plea to know how much longer with: “An hour, or an hour and a half.” You can imagine how this has played havoc with my sense of time.

Perhaps that’s why I love Gaudete Sunday, this third Sunday of Advent, so much. Because it lets us know quite clearly that we’re almost there! While Advent is not quite the arduous long haul that Lent can (seem to) be, it is, or should be, a period of penance (now mostly forgotten) and also of some serious waiting. But not just of “waiting,” like waiting in a line or waiting on hold; not simply the I’m-bored-and-killing-time sort of waiting which so often fills our days. Advent does more than simply keep Thanksgiving from crashing into Christmas; it makes it possible for us to celebrate Christmas, to open up the gift of its mystery and not just open up the gifts under the tree.

This waiting, then, is not the boredom of a child waiting for a holiday, just as the nine months in the womb is not simply the child’s waiting to be born; it is a time of becoming.

And because of this truth, there is nothing monotonous in the rhythm of Advent’s melody, gentle as it is and hard to discern over the tumult of the world’s at times frenzied, if outwardly cheery, refrains. It shares nothing with passive, plodding waiting. Rather, with its subtle, powerful cadence, growing ever clearer and more poignant, picking up in pace and intensity as we let it move us forward through a deepening longing and a growing yearning until its Christmas crescendo, Advent doesn’t just bring us to Christmas, it transforms us so that we might truly arrive at Christ’s Coming.

And this swelling anticipation of Christ’s advent among us becomes – for a brief moment, and only on this day – visible, unexpectedly visible, in the joyful color of Gaudete Sunday – rose. On only this day (and its counterpart in Lent’s fourth Sunday, called Lætare) does the Church delight us with the gift of seeing rose vestments. And, by the way, they’re not supposed to be pink (although sometimes it can’t be helped)! Pink – pretty perhaps in some circumstances – would be just a tad bit too showy for the dignified, confident but never presumptuous tone of this day, which says “Yes, we are near (or better yet, He is near), but there’s still more to do.” Rose, exuberant but understated, strikes just the right note, not just that the waiting is soon over, but far more, that the joy of expectation is growing and will soon be met with fulfillment.

While the striking color of the day expresses the mind and mood of the Church, it also is the color worn by the priest, or better said, worn by Christ, who takes to Himself this sign of joy – His joy now – that soon He will be with us! To espy the anticipation of Christ for His coming to us adds a new level to our excitement.

The entrance antiphon of the day which sets the tone of the Mass and gives this Sunday its name puts words to this moment’s phrase in Advent’s song:
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete . . . Dominus enim prope est. [Rejoice in the Lord always: I say it again, rejoice . . . for the Lord is near.] Saint Paul here sums up what we hear in the scriptures of this day: Isaiah’s announcing of the glad tidings for us – liberty to the captives, release of prisoners – our liberty, our release from sin and sadness. If we wish to accept it, of course.

John the Baptist today does not speak of joy explicitly, but in his statement “I am not the Christ!” he shows us how to find joy. While none of us (I presume) walks around saying “I am the Messiah,” there are many ways in which we forget the truth that we are, in fact, not only not the Messiah, but that we desperately need Him!  Often, it is mostly among those who are struggling to lead good and holy lives, who seek to do the Lord’s will, that this temptation is greatest! It is so easy to say: “I will do this or that for God!” (And the desire is indeed good). But we forget then the most important truth: it is not what I do for God, but what I allow God to do in me and through me, that makes us holy and joyful.  So if the Baptist, who, of all people (Jesus Himself said John the Baptist was the greatest) might have had a claim on calling himself the Messiah (he was like a rock star in his own time, and people would have followed him), thinks it’s worth saying “I am not the Christ,” perhaps it will be of some spiritual value for us to imitate him. We can more easily enter into joy once we have placed ourselves totally in the line of grace.

In addition to the joy, both in word and in color, which helps us understand this moment in our Advent journey, there is a word I would like to suggest, a word for prayer and contemplation which expresses where we stand in all of Advent, of course, but perhaps most particularly at this moment. That word is maranatha. Many will recognize this from hymns and prayers. It is an Aramaic phrase coming to us as one word in a Greek transliteration. This fact leads, for some, to confusion as to its meaning, and, for others, to an entrance into the mystery of Advent.

Maranatha could be either Máran atha, which would mean “Our Lord has/is come” or, prescinding from the complicated scholarly linguistic debate on this point, if you presume that the original was Marána tha, then it would mean “Come, our Lord!” The first is a creedal statement, one which brings great comfort. Our Lord is already come, has established His Kingdom (this is certainly true), even if we recognize that this Kingdom is not yet completely manifested in the world (or in us!). The second is a great prayer of expectation and desire. Both positions have both spiritual value and linguistic credibility.

Does not, however, the brilliance of God in His inspiration allow us to see in the apparent confusion of interpretations both of these great truths – the reality of the Lord’s presence and the need to express our desire for His Coming? Is this not what Advent is – both a celebration of the fact that we live already in His Kingdom (if He had not already been born, there would be no Christmas!) but that our identity is also found in our longing for that Kingdom, for its complete manifestation in the world and, most urgently, in ourselves?

May the joyful, growing, gently insistent rhythm of Advent, bursting out for just this one day into joyful color, together with the faithful proclamation and the heartfelt yearning of Maranatha be for us the definitive answer to the Great Question of the excited child in each of us: Are we there yet? How much longer? Rejoice, the Lord is near!

Prepared for Aleteia by theCanonry of Saint Leopold. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.

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