What are you waiting for?
Kristen challenged me with this question on the first day of Advent. I was at once giddy to have a focus for the season, and heartbroken because the answer isn’t so simple.
I’ve shared before that I’m at a low point faith-wise. When we left the Catholic church during Holy Week this year, I really thought it was just a geographic change. I told myself that I still believed all the same things, I just couldn’t stand with that particular institution any more. But once I stepped outside and was free to question, I realized I in fact have a lot of questions—a lot of doubts—and not many answers.
Traditionally for me, this season has meant a quieting of my soul, and often some form of Lenten-like sacrifice, designed to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming at Christmas. Decorating was usually done over the course of a week or two, starting with the tree. We read the story of Joseph and Mary’s journey and Jesus’ birth slowly with the help of 24 book/ornaments that we then hung on the tree, the kids arguing over “who gets to hang baby Jesus” on Christmas Eve. Privately I usually read an Advent devotional of some kind, and did a little spiritual journaling.
So what is Advent when you don’t know if God exists? Can you wait for a baby’s birth that already happened over 2000 years ago if you think that maybe he was a really gifted inspirational speaker?
There is a part of me that would like to leave all the lace and fluff and glitter in the boxes this year and just spend the time pondering that question. In truth, I haven’t given myself much time to just sit with it, partly for lack of time and partly for fear of what I might discover. No matter the answer, the implications are life-changing. Then there is the other part of me, that reflexively bought Advent candles before I really thought about whether I wanted to this year, and washes dishes every night to the accompaniment of Christmas music. Since I don’t live in a vacuum, and family dynamics are what they are, we will continue the traditions to the end of time.
My solution to this inner conflict is to take advice from one of my favorite writing teachers. As I participate in each activity—so far only setting up the tree and lighting the first Advent candle—I ask myself, “Does this feel true? Do I believe this?” With the tree, I pondered whether I believe in hope, symbolized by its ever-greenness. (yes) With the Advent candle, I pondered whether I believe in the need for creating small motes of light in the world, even as it grows darker and colder around us. (yes) And what is it that creates hope and light in the world?
A dear friend told me when I first began struggling with faith that this was a great opportunity, because without the constraints of religious dogma I can be free to focus on love everywhere. God, after all, is love. I had told her that I find myself increasingly drawn to people, as individuals—to their gifts and their flaws and their stories, and that I just want to hug everyone around me and make them all cookies because people suffer and the worst suffering is a lack of feeling loved.
The odd thing is, I’ve felt this way since leaving organized religion. Another dear friend suggested to me that perhaps leaving the confines of structure and rules has allowed me—my heart, my world—to expand. I used to think of atheists and agnostics as inherently selfish people. After all, if there are no rules to dictate that you be nice, you naturally won’t be, right? What I’ve found, in myself and other “A’s,” is just the opposite. If this world is even potentially all there is, there is that much more urgency to love each other. If the poor will not be vindicated in Heaven, there is that much more need to help them today. If I won’t be with you for all eternity, I’d better make it count right now.
And yet, I hold back. Do I want to be the woman who says awkward things? Do I want to give cookies to strangers? I mean, that’s crazy, right?
Perhaps I’ve been reading the question incorrectly. Instead of what are you waiting for, perhaps it’s what are you waiting for.
I love you.