Sunday marked the first day of Advent, the season of waiting for the coming of the Lord.
On the day before, Pope Francis gave an address to visitors from the Italian dioceses of Ugento-Santa Maria di Leuca and Molfetta-Ruvo-Giovinazzo-Terlizzi.
In his speech (reported here in the Catholic Herald), the Pope spoke of Advent as the time of “consoling novelty and joyous waiting”, a season to turn away from fear to the consolation that God brings in the incarnate word.
As with the passage from one calendar year to another, me standing at the threshold of a new liturgical year fills me with both the eager anticipation of the good changes to come. For the most part, however, I am also filled with the anxieties that come with so many uncertainties. Waiting is also not my strong suit, and worry is my constant companion in life. I have had many an occasion where I have had to wait.
I cannot say that I have become better at it, I just am more aware of those occasions when they arise.
That said, those seasons of waiting have made me think about why I found the act of waiting so hard, and what progress in this period of waiting might look like. After reading that line from the Pope’s address to treat Advent as a time of “joyous waiting”, I thought I might try to lay out some reference points what waiting this Advent might look like.
If I could put it in a framework similar to the well worn psychological mantra of the “five stages of grief”, it would be something like a three stage process of Advent waiting
- Relinquishing Control: Worry about things turns us into control freaks. In our frantic attempts to eliminate worry, we survey every angle of our situation or problem and try to rid it of every wrinkle. Sometimes, when there is nothing to worry about, we will find something to worry about, and scour every angle of our situation or problem again and maybe introduce a wrinkle or two to make us worry. Worry is a pathological drive to give ourselves the impression that we are in control. More often than not, the realisation that we need to wait comes at the point when we exhaust our capacity to control, manipulate and anticipate a problem. It is the point where we realise that no amount of worry is going to keep us on top of things in the present and able to control how things will unfold in the future. The call to wait is thus a call to realise I have hit this limit, and that at the very least, I stop trying to either gain or nitpick our way into the captain’s chair.
- Giving Control to Someone Else: The Advent call to wait does something more than just tell me to passively stop being a control freak. In an essay on liturgy, Scott Bader-Saye argued that our worship is tied to the realisation that I am not the lord of history. This point can apply to Advent waiting as well, for waiting has an active dimension, which is rooted in the constant awareness that someone else is the Lord of history, for He is the one that made history. That someone else has an edge over the worrier in that worrier only entertains the illusion that he or she knows how history will unfold. The Lord of history, meanwhile, actually does have the knowledge of how that history unfolds.Thus, it makes sense to hand our oversight of our fortunes over to him. Indeed, the First Letter of St Peter makes the injunction to “cast all your worry unto the Lord” (1 Pet 5:7) as not just a mere action, but a posture towards our being in the world.The act of handing over our control is thus heavy with metaphysical significance, because in handing over our worry, we also come to realise our status as a creature, made in the image of the one who literally made history.
- Realise that Giving Control Opens Endless Possibilities: The psalm says “commit your way to the Lord, and lean not on your own understanding” (PS 37:5).One of the causes of our worry is that, as creatures, we have only a finite understanding of a situation, giving us only a finite number of ways out of any given problem. The worry is based on the fear that, left to our own devices, we might one day exhaust those avenues, and run out of solutions.Handing over our anxieties to God in a time of Advent has another, very often unarticulated, dimension. This dimension was articulated, however, by the medieval Scholastic, St Bonaventure. As Ilia Delio wrote in her summary of his thought, Bonaventure spoke of the second person of the Trinity as the Word, the Logos or the reasoning behind all things. More than that, the Logos was also the deposit of every possible reasoning behind every possible thing, the convergence of every single possibility both within history and outside of it.In relinquishing control, therefore, we not only say that we are not in charge, but that we also hand over our limited oversight over our history to one in whom every single possibility for that that history is contained. In foregoing our finite vision, we immerse our life in the font of infinite possibility.Our season of waiting for the incarnate Word, therefore, is not merely a memorial of a blip in a vague and general chronological timeline. It is a season of waiting to see how the Word as infinite possibility, opens up these possibilities within our particular timeline, just at the moment when we thought that opening any avenue for our life has come to an end.