From The Liturgical Year
When all the feasts have been celebrated and all the prayers are said and done, the strength and power of the liturgical year does not lie in its cataloging of feast days and seasons, as important as these are. Nor does it lie in its rubrics and rituals. The real power of the liturgical year is its spiritual capacity to touch and plumb the depths of the human experience, to stir the human heart. By walking the way of the life of Jesus, by moving into the experience of Jesus, we discover the meaning of our own experiences, the undercurrent of our own emotions, the struggle it takes to go on walking the way.
By taking us into the depth of what it means to be a human on the way to God — to suffer and to wonder, to know abandonment and false support, to believe and to doubt — the liturgical year breaks us open to the divine. It gives us the energy to become the fullness of ourselves. It makes the next step possible. It calms us as we stumble from one to the other. It leads us beyond our present selves to the self that lies in wait for God.
The liturgical year does not begin at the heart of the Christian enterprise. It does not immediately plunge us into the chaos of the Crucifixion or the giddy confusion of the Resurrection. Instead, the year opens with Advent, the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.
A friend recently gave me a textile wall-hanging from Peru that makes clear that the process of finding God in the small things of life is as profound as it is simple. A pastoral scene of palm trees and rural lean-tos has been hand-stitched by peasant women, quilt-style, across the top of a felt banner. Under it is a calendar of thirty small pockets, each of them filled with something we can’t see. Every day until Christmas, we are invited to find the part of the scene that has been pocketed for that day and attach it to the scene above, one piece of handwoven cloth adhering to the other as we go.
Some of the pieces are of benign and beautiful things; some are not. There are bumble bees and angels, wild animals and dry straw, a branch-laden peasant man and a weary-looking woman. But there at the end of the days, as common as all the rest of the items in the scene, is the manger; the sign of the One who knows what life is like for us, who has mixed His own with ours. Now, we can see, all our expectations have been worth it.
Advent is about learning to wait. It is about not having to know exactly what is coming tomorrow, only that whatever it is, some hard, some uplifting, is sign of the work of God alive in us. We are becoming as we go. We learn in Advent to stay in the present, knowing that only the present well lived can possibly lead us to the fullness of life.
Life is not meant to be escaped, we learn, as the liturgical year moves from season to season, from feast to feast. It is meant to be penetrated, to be plumbed to its depths, to be tasted and savored and bring us to realize that the God who created us is with us yet. Life, we come eventually to know, is an exercise in transformation, the mechanics of which take a lifetime of practice, of patience, of slow, slow growth.
Clearly, then, learning to wait is an essential dimension of spiritual development. It has its own values, bringing its own character to the process of becoming spiritually mature.
Waiting hones our insights. It gives us the time and space, the perspective and patience that enable us to discriminate between the good, the better, and the best. It is so simple to go through life blind to the wealth of its parts, swallowing life whole, oblivious to its punctuation points. Then we fail to call ourselves to the small, daily demands of compassion or choice, trust or effort. If we do not learn to wait, we can allow ourselves to assume that one thing really is as good for us as another. Then we forget that life is about more than this life. We race over the top of it, satiating ourselves with the obvious, unmindful of its depths. We become stale of soul. We fail to grow spiritually.
It is waiting that attunes us to the invisible in a highly material world. In contemporary society, what counts is what we can get and what we have. Instead of listening for the voice of God in the winds of change around us, we can come to hear only our own.
The function of Advent is to remind us what we’re waiting for as we go through life too busy with things that do not matter to remember the things that do. When year after year we hear the same scriptures and the same hymns of longing for the life to come, of which this one is only its shadow, it becomes impossible to forget the refrains of the soul.
Advent relieves us of our commitment to the frenetic in a fast-paced world. It slows us down. It makes us think. It makes us look beyond today to the “great tomorrow” of life. Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere that exhausts the world around us, we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control this life that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow.
It is while waiting for the coming of the reign of God, Advent after Advent, that we come to realize that its coming depends on us. What we do will either hasten or slow, sharpen or dim our own commitment to do our part to bring it.
Waiting — that cold, dry period of life when nothing seems to be enough and something else beckons within us — is the grace that Advent comes to bring. It stands before us, within us, pointing to the star for which the wise ones from the East are only icons of ourselves.
We all want something more. Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now? And where is that star in its present radiance in your life leading you? Is it a place that is really comprehensive enough to equal the breadth of the human soul?