Advent is a season of preparation in joyful hope for the coming of Christ. We remember His first coming 2000 years ago, anticipate His coming in glory at the end of times, and so make our hearts ready to welcome Him in the moments of each and every day. Advent is a season of preparation.
But preparation is difficult and uncomfortable. It’s hard to listen to John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way for the Lord. It’s tempting to blindly abdicate to the pressures of our materialist society, where we are taught that the only preparation we need is checking everyone off of our Christmas shopping list.
So what does it mean to live Advent authentically? And why is it worth it?
Waiting as delayed gratification
In the face of this tension, some Catholics advocate for an Advent of delayed gratification. Just a little bit of Christmas music every day, then turn it off. Only a single Christmas party per weekend, then stay home. Learning to sometimes say no to these celebratory characteristics of the Christmas season is supposed to adequately prepare us to celebrate in fullness at Christmas. This is the way of moderation, the mean. In theory, this allows us to arrive at Christmas with hearts ready to welcome Jesus’s coming as the astonishing miracle that it is.
This echoes neuroscience research on delayed gratification. Researchers use a famous study paradigm called “the marshmallow test” to measure impulse control and gratification delay. The foundational studies in this field were conducted in the mid 20th century by Walter Mischel. Children in his lab had to choose between eating a single marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows after a 15-minute waiting period. The experimenter would leave the room during this period, forcing the child to wait alone. From this and similar studies, we know that the ability to delay gratification is essential to health and success in every domain of life – academic, social, economic, physical. This is likely because it measures brain capacity for self-control and goal-directed behavior, what neuroscientists call “executive function.”
Along this line of reasoning, Advent is a time of practicing self-control and delayed gratification. By passively waiting and saying “no” to celebrations along the way, we are strengthening our executive function and preparing ourselves for Christmas.
But this is to miss the point.
Waiting as active anticipation
In this season, we do not merely say, “I would be available, Christ, if you were to come one day.” Rather, we dare to beg with urgency, Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly!
What does this mean?
Delayed gratification is part of the season. But more importantly, Advent is a time of active anticipation. These days, the Gospel readings are full of exhortations to be vigilant (Luke 21), to do the will of the Father (Mt 7), and to approach Christ and beg Him to enter our house (Mt 8) crying out to Him to heal us (Mt 9). Far from passivity, Sacred Scripture calls us to conversion, which is the act of running toward Christ with arms outstretched.
This anticipation is active because we are confident in the promise that awaits us. We know the earth-shattering power of the Incarnation. We have tasted the goodness of the event of Christ, when we encounter Him in our everyday life. And we long for His Second Coming, because we know that His Kingdom is the fulfillment of all of our restless longing.
So we wait actively, we run toward Christ through conversion of heart, because we are certain of the promise that awaits us.
How to live Advent
So, how do we practice this active anticipation? There are three essential ways we should live this season.
Slow down and make room for silence
We are to cultivate joyful hope in His coming, today and at the end of time. This is impossible if we are full of clamorous noise. This noise may be coming from the busyness of a hectic work schedule, the constant stimulation of an overwhelming social life, or the addictive messages of technology. Our brains and our spirits are desperately in need of silence, of quiet, of rest from busyness, from socializing, from technology. Exterior silence allows us to notice and quiet the interior noise that might stifle the voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Say “yes” to discipline, not just “no” to materialist secular celebrations
We are to examine our lives and, in response to the call of John the Baptist, make our hearts ready to welcome the Lord. This demands conversion. Ask God to help you see where in your life you are closed off to Him because of selfishness, distraction, and hard-heartedness. These are “swords” that hurt others, and we are asked to turn them into “plowshares” that till our hearts to make them gentle and life-giving. Only through asceticism, fearless conversion, and self-sacrificial love will we make the soil of our hearts ready for His coming.
Draw close to Him in Word and in Sacrament
The beauty of the Advent season is that we know the One whom we await. He comes to us in the Sacred Scripture and in the Eucharist, to strengthen us in hope of His coming. So take advantage of the inestimable gifts He gives us. Go to Daily Mass. Adore Him in prayer. Receive His forgiveness through Confession. Contemplate His words, promises, and exhortations in the Bible.
Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. She is the perfect model for the season of Advent. Though she was preserved from the stain of Original Sin, her free will was not taken away. The Virgin Mother still had to make a lifetime of decisions, which built up in her a holy character, a radical love, an active anticipation of unity with God the Father. Let’s imitate her heroic virtue during this season.
Further reading recommendations
For Advent, I’m preparing with Mother Mary Francis’ Come Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Art of Waiting. It’s powerful and I highly recommend it.