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We don’t wait well. Every year people like me complain about the world treating December as if it were Christmas, and look censoriously on the Christians who should know better but still belt out “Silent Night” starting in late November. And we’re right to do so. My wife, though a woman of many virtues, would have the tree decorated and the lights shining on Thanksgiving day, and the heck with the church year, were she not blessed to be married to a calendaric rigorist.
I write suffering my annual mid-Advent fit of grumpiness, having spent time with a friend who said “Merrrrrry Christmas!” to everyone and having found myself several times sitting at my computer singing Christmas carols because I’d heard them in the grocery store. It makes me grumpy, our culture’s disregard of Advent, though I probably should admit that I enjoy feeling righteously grumpy.
The argument for Advent, for holding off on celebrating Christmas, seems kind of obvious. Christmas is the day when man first saw the Son of God. If a friend told you the Son of God was through that door over there, you’d brush the lint off your jacket and tuck in your shirt and comb your hair and make sure the lettuce wasn’t still stuck in your teeth. You’d take a minute to make sure you were at your best when you met him. The baby wouldn’t care, but you would.
You do the same thing when a special guest is coming over for dinner. Your priest, say, or maybe your favorite Aleteia writer. (If that happens to be me, I like my steak very rare and will eat nearly anything but celery, and I like ales and red wine.) Your guest may be happy just to hang out with you and eat take-out pizza, but you clean the house, set the table nicely, make your special dish, put the children in their best clothes (or hide them in the basement, depending). It’s a way of honoring your guest.
That’s Advent. It’s the time you spend getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth. He doesn’t ask you to do it, but spiffing things up is something we do for our honored guests.
Now imagine that guest is also a hero of yours. He’s a great man you’ve always tried to imitate. And he’s actually coming to your house. You’d try to make yourself more like him, for pretty much the same reasons you fix up the house before he gets there. Say he’d been a soldier who saved some people under fire. You might push yourself to stick up for the guy getting insulted by the office bully, even when that will only make the bully come after you. When your hero walks through the front door, you want to feel a little heroic yourself.
That’s also Advent. You want to honor your guest by making things nice for him, and you want to honor him by living like him.
When that honored guest is our Lord and Savior who at the end of time will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end, you prepare. That’s just what you do. Advent is the admirably practical way the Church has given us to prepare. On the one hand, we have the fasting, the Bible-reading and the giving of alms, and on the other we have the not-celebrating-Christmas. Put up the Christmas tree if you have to, but just don’t decorate it. Leave the stockings in the drawer. This is not hard, Mrs. Mills.
The payoff is that the Christmas you’ve really waited for is so much better because you get all of it all at once. Just think of singing “Silent Night” for the first time in at least 51 weeks as you kneel in your church at the Christmas Eve Mass, being about to receive or having already received the Lord, whose birth you and everyone around you is singing about. It always leaves me in tears. It’s the perfect moment to sing those words. It wouldn’t move me so much if I’d already sung it three or four or five Sundays in a row.
As I say, we don’t wait well. I don’t find Advent a problem, but I do find other restrictions hard. Lent’s a pain. I’d rather not wait for Easter, when Easter means meat and beer. Giving to your church and to others is a pain when that means waiting to get something you really want.
But the waiting trains us to control the self and helps us make a little more room in our hearts for God and others. In the Church waiting usually means waiting to enjoy a blessing in its proper place, the place where it is most enjoyable because it belongs there. The most dramatic example is waiting for marriage to enjoy sexual intimacy. Walking by a bare tree for a week or two and then decorating it after you’ve left Mass, singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” as loudly as you can — that too has its unique pleasures.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMillsWrtng.