The reason for the season: An annual reminder that that we are not alone in the darkness
TRUE OR FALSE: “Patience is a virtue only for people who don’t die!”
On my better days I’m inclined to say it’s false; on my darker days, I’m inclined to say it’s true. The present season of Advent is for people who are in darker days, waiting for the lights to come on. I mention this because it’s common for people to gush about patience during Advent.
Inevitably, some well-intentioned homilist likens an Advent season well-lived to “the serene, contemplative patience of the pregnant woman awaiting the birth of her child.” Whoever says such things hasn’t spent much time with pregnant women—especially in their third trimester.
Yes, it’s true that the spiritual import of Advent, accompanied by relevant Scriptures, speaks of waiting, of longing, and of that misunderstood virtue—patience.
Traveling abroad, I spoke with a nun whose imperfect English was exquisitely illuminating. She told me: “Father, sometimes I have the Not-Patience. And then, I suffer from disturbings and worriness.”
Doesn’t that describe the human condition well? Doesn’t it capture perfectly the spiritual state of those of us who live at a frantic pace, living lives of frenetic consumption and exhausting anxiety? Doesn’t it describe the state of those of us who live as spiritual orphans rather than as spiritual children who know their Heavenly Father loves them?
This evening, before I sat down to write, I had an unexpected conversation with a fellow Jesuit many years my senior. Talking about our lives and vocations, he asked me, “Are you happy?” I was struck by his directness.
I answered: “I don’t regret my vocation and I haven’t looked back. I marvel at the graces and mercies of my vocation. But I have a penchant for being gloomy, and sometimes I’m unhappy, especially because I haven’t reached to what God has called me to.”
This man, who has been a Jesuit longer than I’ve been alive replied: “Sometimes, for a long time, I can be unhappy. And I’ve learned that I’m only unhappy to the degree that I haven’t surrendered to God.”
I prayed at that moment that I would always remember this conversation.
Advent is for people who are unhappy because they haven’t surrendered to God. They don’t have the patience needed to expect to be rescued from darkness. When they hear the prophet proclaim, “The people in darkness have seen a great light!” (Isaiah 9:2), they assume that prophecy is not for them. They are in the dark—and they don’t expect the lights to come on.
Patience recognizes the not-yet of what is awaited; patience prepares to receive and live with what is waited for. That’s why the sculptor Auguste Rodin said that, “Patience is also a form of action.” The patience that Advent calls for is symbolized by the lighting of candles—small and fragile lights that are consumed as they echo by a kind of anticipation the promised fullness of light.
The Medievals said that, “Patience is the pillar that nothing can shake; patience is the pillar that nothing can soften.” Patience is a stubborn and confident clinging to the promises of one who is worthy of trust. Patience characterizes the life of one who insists that the darkness cannot last forever and that the prison walls can be breached.
Some say that Advent is a fraud, that is, we pretend to be awaiting the birth of the Savior and then pretend to be surprised when Christmas Day arrives. That misses the point.
Yes, Christ has already come in history—Jesus born in Bethlehem is both Son of God and Son of Mary. Yes, Christ comes to us in mystery—in Scripture, sacraments, in all forms of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, and in our neighbor. And Christ will come in glory, to judge the living and the dead, to “wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4) and to fulfill all his promises beyond our capacity to understand or imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Because we live in time, because our senses are limited, our intellects darkened, our wills weakened, our hearts fickle, we find ourselves in a darkness that appears—at least sometimes—endless. Time seems to be against us, and it seems that patience is foolish, because there’s nothing worth waiting for, and no one is coming to save us.
That’s why we need the season of Advent again and again—because we need to be reminded in a way that is both disciplined and loving that we’re not orphans and that the darkness cannot defeat the light of the world. If we’re impatient, unhappy, and don’t expect the lights to come on, perhaps, we’ve not yet, as my Jesuit friend said, surrendered to God.
When I write next, I’ll speak of misconceptions of Christmas. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.