One of my all time favorite passages from the Office of Readings is Saint Augustine’s meditation on desire:
Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it), but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. (Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)
I remember reading this while I was studying in Rome seven years ago. I was praying a lot then, for many things, and the idea that my prayer was a means by which God was “stretching” my heart so that I could have the capacity to receive his gift really helped me.
It strikes me that this meditation describes very well what Advent is all about. We are waiting and hoping for God to finally come, just like Israel waited (and still waits).
The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no color. No ear has heard it; it has no sound. It has not entered man’s heart; man’s heart must enter into it. (Ibid)
Because, of course, the “gift” which is “very great indeed” is the Emmanuel Himself.
If you read the Old Testament this way, it makes more sense. All of that wandering in the desert, the exile and return, the judgment of the prophets, the takeover by Babylonians and Greeks and Romans was an enormous stretching process whereby the desire of Israel for the Messiah was increased. By the time of Jesus, that desire was so intense that people were identifying messiahs everywhere.
We see this same desire in the Church as we look forward to the Messiah’s second coming. We see it especially in the “O Antiphons” and the repetition of the word “come” over and over again. Each antiphon has a different name for Jesus– “Wisdom”, “Leader,” “Root”, “Key”, “Radiant Dawn”, “King”, “Emmanuel”, and in each antiphon the speaker begs for the Messiah to “come”:
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
Augustine even alludes to “set times and seasons” in which we pray to God “in words” to help us “mark the progress we have made in our desire.” I think this is exactly what Advent is:
In this faith, hope and love we pray always with unwearied desire. However, at set times and seasons we also pray to God in words, so that by these signs we may instruct ourselves and mark the progress we have made in our desire, and spur ourselves on to deepen it. The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruit. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing, he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him who alone is able to give it.
(Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)
And for that reason I find this liturgical season very meaningful, because I feel like a lot of my life involves waiting. Waiting for my students to show progress. Waiting for a friend to call. Waiting to see my family at Christmas. Waiting for the next step in my vocation.
What are you waiting for?
In 2010, Pope Benedict asked this question. I was still in college and waiting to discover what would come after. I had a vague idea about teaching, but I did not know that in a few short months I would be moving to Louisiana and beginning life as a first year English teacher. I did not know how hard it would be – or how much love I would receive and learn how to give. I was anxious to know what was going to come next.
The Pope said during the First Sunday of Advent that year:
One could say that man is alive as long as he waits, as long as hope is alive in his heart. And from his expectations man recognizes himself: our moral and spiritual “stature” can be measured by what we wait for, by what we hope for.
Every one of us, therefore, especially in this Season which prepares us for Christmas, can ask himself: What am I waiting for? What, at this moment of my life, does my heart long for?
The Pope is right when he says “man is alive as long as he waits.” The implication of course is that “when he no longer waits, man is no longer alive.”
The people of Israel know about waiting more than the rest of us. Theirs is a history of faithful waiting on the Lord, the mysterious God who speaks through their Law and their Prophets. These people still live waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Christians, too, live in waiting – in the already-but-not-yet waiting for the coming of Christ.
And all of us – even if we are not believers – are waiting. Waiting for tomorrow. Waiting for the next good day. Waiting for the pay raise, or the job offer, or the family reunion.
And yet I have such little patience for waiting!
In fact, I had thought for a time that waiting was not a good thing. After all, you cannot just follow Freidrich’s advice in The Sound of Music and simply “wait for life to start” until the love of your life finally shows up.
As much as I love Julie Andrews, I’m not waiting for life to start, I assured myself – since it already started for me over a quarter century (!) ago now. Life keeps happening whether you realize it or not. And, in the wise words of Ferris Bueller:
And the point behind carpe diem is, of course, not to wait. We are constantly afraid of missing out on life, so let’s seize it now before it gets away from us.
Advent, however, has a very different message. Yes, life has already started. But as Benedict says, really being alive means waiting.
But no one would ever have imagined that the Messiah could be born of a humble girl like Mary, the betrothed of a righteous man, Joseph. Nor would she have ever thought of it, and yet in her heart the expectation of the Savior was so great, her faith and hope were so ardent, that he was able to find in her a worthy mother. Moreover, God himself had prepared her before time. There is a mysterious correspondence between the waiting of God and that of Mary, the creature “full of grace”, totally transparent to the loving plan of the Most High. Let us learn from her, the Woman of Advent, how to live our daily actions with a new spirit, with the feeling of profound expectation that only the coming of God can fulfil. (Ibid)
Waiting is difficult and painful, but it is not fruitless. It is the proper posture of man before life.
Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us. (Pope Benedict, Homily at First Vespers of Advent, November 28, 2009)
The priest’s homily yesterday for the First Sunday of Advent was very simple but very good. He told this story–which I am retelling as closely as my memory allows:
There was a monk who had been praying for a very long time, perhaps for years, to see the Lord face to face. Finally, in prayer, the Lord informed him that He would come and visit him the very next day.
Thrilled, the monk finished his prayers and went to bed, but it took him a long time to fall asleep because he was so excited. Morning came and he looked out the window at the beautiful sunrise and thought to himself, “Today is the day I will see the face of God!”
The bells rang for morning prayer and for Mass. The monk had gone every day for the last thirty years, but today he decided to stay in his room because he did not want to miss God when he came to visit him.
A long while later, about mid-morning, there was a knock on the door. The monk, trembling, opened it– only to find the concerned face of his brother monk, who was worried about him because he had not come to Mass that day. “Are you all right?” The monk assured his friend that all was well, and he hastily closed the door to continue waiting for God.
About an hour later there was another knock at the door. Again, however, the monk was disappointed– it was only another brother reminding him of his duties to care for the sick friars, to change their bedsheets, to give them their medicine. “Would you mind covering for me today?” pleaded the monk. “I am waiting for a very important Visitor!”
His friend agreed, and the monk continued to wait for God to arrive.
The day went on. Evening came. It was time for the monk to shut the gate to the monastery. He bustled out of his room to do this quickly, but before he could shut it some travelers called out to him not to shut the door. They begged him to let them in.
“I am sorry – can you please come back tomorrow?” the monk said. “I am very busy this evening. I am waiting for an important Visitor!”
The monk closed the gate and rushed back to his room.
The hours crept by. The monk was feeling more and more discouraged and upset. He watched in dismay as the clock struck midnight.
The day was over – and the Lord had not come as He said He would.
The monk knelt down to pray again. “Why didn’t you come?” he asked. “I waited for you all day long, and you never came.”
The Lord answered him, “I did come. In the morning when you woke, I was in the sunrise, but you did not see me there. I was there at morning prayer and in the Mass, but you were not there to meet Me. I was there in your brother monk who came to check on you, but you did not recognize me. I was there again in your sick and dying brethren, but you did not come to minister to Me. I was there in the travelers seeking food and shelter, but you did not let Me in. I did come.”
I think there are several ways in which we can find this story very unsatisfying.
1) Our consciences are troubled. We recognize this story as being another version of the Last Judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46 – “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you did not take me in…” We, with the monk in the story, reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” (cf. Mt 25:44). And we know that we do this all of the time, through our inattentiveness.
As a teacher I am bombarded by students for seven hours a day, sometimes nonstop, during class but also outside of class. It’s funny because during my off-hour or after school, I am sometimes sitting at my desk, reading a book by the Pope or a blog about the Gospel readings, and I find myself annoyed when students come in – “Hey Ms. Shea, I lost my copy of that homework.” “Hey Ms. Shea, I know I said I would come tomorrow to take that quiz, but can I take it now instead?” “Uh, Ms. Shea, do we have any homework for tonight?” And I swallow my annoyance and think to myself, ugh, I’m trying to read about God here–completely forgetting that God is knocking at my door at that moment through the needs of my kids.
2) Another reason we might find this monk story unsatisfactory in some way is a lot more subtle, and I noticed the temptation in myself as soon as the priest ended his homily. It was a kind of disappointment — that God had promised to show that monk His face but really only meant showing it in ordinary and mundane ways. Huh. Typical. If that’s all He meant, when why didn’t He say so? And why does it always have to be this way? Couldn’t You show Your real Face just once?
We then feel a sort of fake sympathy for the poor monk in the story (who is, of course, ourselves). We think, I bet that poor guy always praised God for the sunrise, always went to prayers and Mass, always helped his sick brothers and took in the travelers. He messed up this one time because of an obvious misunderstanding, and now he’s going to be judged? How is that fair?
And, while we’re at it, why doesn’t God ever mean what He says? He gives so many extravagant promises (read the Old Testament) and they are never fulfilled in the ways we want them to be. Israel was waiting for a Messiah–and what they got was a poor carpenter, a weird rabbi, who was eventually killed by Rome anyway.
But if we step back a little, we can see how wrongheaded these complaints are. The monk was wrong to stay waiting in his room, just as we are wrong to stay waiting in our humdrum lives until some “sign” forces us out of our drab complacency into sudden holiness.
And the Israelites knew what a fearsome thing it would be to behold the Face of God. Moses was afraid he would die, and he covered his face with his robe when the Spirit of the Lord walked by his mountain. To ask to “see” God is really no small matter – and I wonder if perhaps we really know what we’re asking for when we make such a demand.
3.) The third reason for feeling this story is somewhat unsatisfactory is very similar to the second. We (or maybe just I, as the case may be) go back to all those supposed “appearances” of God’s face — God’s version of keeping His promise to the monk. Well, how are we supposed to believe that God comes if we only ever see Him in these ordinary things? Doesn’t the core of our faith rest upon Miracles, after all — the Incarnation and Resurrection? But that was 2,000 years ago. Can’t there be a miracle for us, today?
It’s a tough question. Why does God — if He exists — choose to remain so hidden from everybody. Why does He make it so difficult for us to see Him? If He wants everyone to be saved, then why doesn’t He do something about our blindness, our deafness?
The Church replies that He did do something about it. He became a human being. He died to save us. Read your Bible.
But even so we are unsatisfied. That was so long ago! I wasn’t there! How can I be expected to trust the (strangely) ordinary writings in the Gospels that I cannot verify for accuracy, by people I never met, in a language and culture so different from mine, and composed in a time when accuracy maybe even meant something different than it does now?
But that’s how He is, I realized as I sat back in my pew with a sigh yesterday. That’s Who He is.
The Mass itself went on, and He came–as He always does–in ordinary bread and wine. Nothing spectacular. No show. No obvious suspension of the laws of nature forcing us to believe that He was there at all. Just ordinary bread and wine. Just the miserable faces of the poor. Just the annoying faces of your coworkers or family members. Just the stable and the manger.
God is humble — and perhaps even shy. He does not force us to see Him, or to love Him, or even to look for Him. He leaves that up to us and our freedom. And if we don’t really want to see Him, then we won’t.
Advent is all about our waiting, but it is also about His Coming.
And Christmas, we pray, is when those two movements meet each other.
This beautiful poem comes to mind:
He was born in an obscure village
The child of a peasant woman
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty
He never wrote a book
He never held an office
He never went to college
He never visited a big city
He never travelled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness
He had no credentials but himself
He was only thirty three
His friends ran away
One of them denied him
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing
The only property he had on earth
When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life.