A Time to Wait

An Advent reflection

On a hectic December morning several years ago, as I was getting ready to go to work, into our bedroom marched my then two-and- half-year-old son Brian, clad in nothing but a diaper, and holding a bottle of milk like a royal scepter. He looked at me, and in a triumphant voice proclaimed: "Jesus is coming!!!" But before I could congratulate myself for our having done such a fine job in Advent catechesis, he immediately followed that proclamation with a second: "Go! Go! Power Rangers!!" And with this solemn invocation of the superheroes of the day, he did an about-face and marched back into the living room.

There is a way in which this brief encounter sums up the challenge of the Advent season: the confrontation between our faith and a culture often tone deaf to the values of Advent. One fundamental aspect of this confrontation (and it need not always be a confrontation) between faith and contemporary culture is the impact of modern technology on our experience of time.

The clock may be the most important machine of modern technology. Until the late thirteenth century, most clocks were either sundials or water clocks, both of which kept time by careful alignment with the rhythms of the natural world. With the advent of the mechanical clock in the fourteenth century, and its mass production in the nineteenth century, time became separated from natural rhythms, both internal (heartbeat, breathing, hunger patterns, for example) and external (the cycle of day and night, the annual seasons, etc.), to which premoderns aligned themselves. Once time could be measured in independent units apart from the consideration of internal or external rhythms, time began to appear "under our control." We are now encouraged to "make the most of our time," or to "use our time wisely." Human activities are increasingly measured by their time-efficiency.

Alongside clocks we might include microwave ovens, cell phones, pagers, home computers, and a myriad of other devices that modern technology offers us in our quest to conquer time. Let us consider but one, the microwave oven. Many of us now rely on microwave ovens for a good share of the cooking. At first the microwave oven was employed primarily to warm up left-overs, but now we have packaged microwave meals that help us save time by eliminating much of meal preparation. What microwaves offer us is a more efficient use of time. But they also change the way we "spend" time, for the time spent preparing a meal is also the best argument for its leisurely consumption. A meal which requires no preparation also lays little claim to sustained dinner interaction. Microwave meals are made, not just to be prepared quickly, but to be consumed quickly.

This is the paradox of our age: We can easily become so trapped in an endless spiral to purchase more technological gadgets which promise to help us "save" time that we have lost the ability to "spend" time. We no longer know how to luxuriate in the present because we are obsessed with technologically "banking" our time for some never-quite-realized future enjoyment. Even actively committed Christians tend to see the issue of time as one of finding a place for "religious time" in their busy lives. They will heroically carve out a place for brief daily prayer, Sunday Eucharist, children’s catechesis, and perhaps a weeknight parish meeting of one kind or another. But what is forgotten is the invitation which the season of Advent offers us, not just to carve out some time for God, but to undergo conversion in our very experience of time. It is in Advent that we learn, not to master time, but rather to submit ourselves to the flow of God’s time. In Advent we can learn the spirituality of waiting.

Advent, it is important to remember, draws our attention to two biblical pregnancies. To one young virgin, Mary, an angel announces the inexplicable-she shall bear a child. To another old and barren woman, Elizabeth, cousin to that young girl, the gift of pregnancy is also given. And in the womb of Elizabeth, the blessed leaps in the presence of the one who blesses. And so these two women wait-and with all the mothers of the world, they teach us how to wait. So let us submit to the pedagogy of mothers and the testimony of fathers and reflect on the lessons that come from bringing a child into the world.

First there is the news that there is to be a child. Often a woman realizes this almost intuitively, sensing the first changes in her body. Then the waiting begins. But it is a peculiar waiting, for there already is a child in the womb. And yet, in the beginning, particularly for the father, there are few discernible signs of what is to come. Therein lies the heart of the Advent spirit.

Advent is a paradoxical season. It is to be a season of waiting, a season governed by anticipation. But what are we waiting for? We are waiting for the Christ who has already come and is to come again. Much like the child in the womb, we believe Christ to be present and yet we wait. We know what it is to wait for a guest to arrive; but waiting on a guest who has already arrived is another matter! And yet that is what Advent asks of us. In faith we must celebrate, even in our waiting, the reality of Emmanuel, God with us.

This is the central challenge for any spirituality. How do we discover God when the divine presence is not obvious? How do we find God when it is his absence which seems most evident? We must learn to cultivate, the mothers of the church remind us, attentiveness and contemplation.

As a pregnancy progresses into the second trimester the signs of new life become more observable. From the beginning the mother experiences a number of changes-some pleasant, many not so pleasant. Experienced mothers can feel the child move as early as seventeen weeks. For new mothers it may be as late as twenty weeks. What happens for a couple as the unborn child moves into the second trimester is the cultivation of a new kind of attentiveness. I recall Diana, my wife, telling me that as pregnancy progressed she became much more conscious of her body. Now obviously we are always embodied. We encounter the world through our bodies. But that doesn’t mean that we are conscious of them. Frankly, we tend to take a lot of our bodily reality for granted. But when a woman is pregnant it is hard to take the body for granted. A pregnant mother is particularly attentive to the "text" of her own body.

As a father I found myself becoming more attentive as well. I had to attend to Diana’s special needs for care as the pregnancy progressed. But I also found myself delighting in all sorts of things. I recall reclining in attentive silence next to my wife, like a bird watcher waiting in stillness for the call of a rare bird. I watched for the first discernible kick of the child in the womb. Later it was the chance sweep of an arm or leg across the interior womb creating a visible rippling across the abdomen, a teasing hint of that which was hidden.

There is so much in our lives that goes by unnoticed. Part of learning to wait for God has to do with being attentive to what is happening in our lives. As parents wait for the coming birth they become attentive to the simple signs of the child’s presence, the small delights and joys that come their way with each milestone. In a similar way, finding God is a matter of attentiveness. The problem is that being attentive to the simple blessings of life is precisely what our culture makes so difficult. This kind of attentiveness requires a contemplative spirit. For most of us this contemplation must be exercised in the mundane. Our great spiritual tradition gives us the witness of Brother Lawrence who took comfort in finding the presence of God while washing dishes. Even today, the opportunity for such reflection can come in the commute home, in peeling potatoes, sweeping the kitchen floor, or tinkering under the hood of a car. These are times when the very simplicity or mindlessness of the task can be a means of quieting ourselves and focusing on the present. They can be times which invite us to be still and receptive to the graces of the moment.

We can easily become so trapped in an endless spiral to purchase more technological gadgets which promise to help us "save" time that we have lost the ability to "spend" time.

One of the most difficult aspects of pregnancy for my wife was the experience of progressive confinement. Diana was not prepared for the way in which she quickly tired. This confinement was even more pronounced, not surprisingly, when she carried twins. She could not work the long hours to which she was accustomed. An agile and athletic woman, she found herself feeling clumsy and awkward. She had to learn not to fight the increased confinement and limits the pregnancy imposed on her.

How remarkably difficult it is to embrace confinement, the experience of limitation and constraint. Technology offers us a radical transcendence of confinement and limits. It lures us on with the offer of unlimited accessibility to all we desire. And yet a mother bearing a child reminds us of the grace of simply and freely embracing limits. To learn to wait is to learn that not everything can be or need be in our possession or immediately accessible to us. To learn to wait is to delight in what is at hand rather than to long for what is not. A mother bearing a child learns to delight in the spontaneous hiccups of the child she carries. She learns to embrace limits. In Advent each of us is invited to see a spirituality of waiting as an invitation to embrace limits ourselves.

After the waiting comes the final period of pregnancy, the weeks leading up to the birth. We have had four pregnancies. One ended in miscarriage, in two other pregnancies the onset of labor was artificially induced, and another came "naturally," which is to say, according to the child’s schedule, not ours. The differences were striking. The miscarriage itself was a painful experience of the fragility of life and a sobering realization that we Catholics, for all our convictions about the sanctity of life from conception on, have a long way to go in learning to attend pastorally to those who suffer the pain of miscarriage. The experience of waiting for the "natural" onset of labor brought with it an awareness that the baby could come at any time. With every pain Diana experienced we wondered, "Was this it?" And then came the frenetic activity when labor actually began. Calling family and friends, getting the car packed. By contrast, the two cases in which labor was induced were far less tense; we had an appointment at the hospital and so knew several days in advance when labor would begin. It certainly allowed us to prepare for the event and minimize possible schedule conflicts.

Yet what made the pregnancy ending in the natural onset of labor so different was precisely that it was beyond our control. The baby was going to come according to his own schedule (we had all boys!). Waiting for the labor to begin was a profound lesson in abandonment, giving up control of our lives. That is why I think it so telling that today a far greater number of pregnancies end with artificially induced labor than was the case twenty years ago. Of course, many of these are for medical reasons, but more and more are not. I raise this concern with the confession that we, too, induced labor on one occasion for nonmedical reasons. The experience has led us to reflect more on what is lost in the experience of an artificially induced labor. When scheduling a birth around vacations and business trips is as easy as the scheduling of dental appointments, is there a danger of diminishing the sanctity of the birth itself? Are we losing one of the precious gifts that a pregnancy offers-namely the wonderful blessing that comes when we become receptive to that which is beyond our control.

In an analogous way, there is a depth and a texture to my experience of my children that often doesn’t emerge in planned events but only in the "down time" when nothing important seems to be happening. For example, yesterday, driving my children home from preschool, I listened to my four-year-old making up a hymn with a spontaneous and hilarious mélange of disconnected religious images. It was a musical creation I would not have heard if I were on the cell phone taking care of business or listening to an audio-novel. Yet this "down time" is precisely what our reliance on technology so often eliminates. The hard truth is that we cannot plan for or manipulate God’s grace. Like parents who are open and ready for the unpredictable onset of labor, our lives are blessed to the degree that we are receptive to the unplanned moment.

And with the birth of a child, waiting gives way to wonder. The child comes and it is a time of rejoicing. Few things are more incredible than holding a newborn infant close to your chest. This is what an Advent spirituality points toward. We await the coming of the Word incarnate only to discover that the Word has already come to us, into our daily world. When God chose to enter our world almost two thousand years ago, he came not as a king, but in the simplicity of a stable. God entered a world filled with mundane daily tasks for which few are canonized: the world of family and work, the world of daily labor, meal preparation, and household chores. He took all that is ordinary and, to our modern eyes, boring and without value, and he blessed it and made it holy.

Finally, the birth of a child also begets a new form of waiting, as we can only imagine the tale yet to be written in the child’s life. When, later in his public ministry, Jesus returned to Nazareth, his reception there suggests that nothing in his childhood had prepared the residents for who he would become. And so, too, we wait for the final chapter of human history, to be written in the coming anew of the One who is already with us-present now under the veil of simple acts of kindness and gratitude, surprising eruptions of grace and blessing, moments snatched for reflection and contemplation. Amidst the noise of a culture that screams like a carnival huckster that time is growing short in this season of consumption, we must learn to wait in traffic, kitchens, classrooms, offices, and yes, even in church. We must wait with eyes wide open for signs that our guest is already with us, whispering a word of invitation to abide in him now and forever.

Published in the 1998-12-04 issue: 

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. His books include: Keys to the Council:  Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (co-authored with Catherine Clifford, Liturgical Press, 2012), When the Magisterium Intervenes (editor, Liturgical Press, 2012), Ecclesiology for a Global Church:  A People Called and Sent (Orbis, 2008) and The Church in the Making (Paulist, 2006). 

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