Advent: Wonder-ful waiting

“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”

– G.K. Chesterton

By Ryan Mayer

Director of Office of Catholic Identity Formation & Assessment, Archdiocese of San Francisco

Advent is my favorite liturgical season. Everything hinges on Easter, I know, for as St. Paul says, “if Christ has not been raised, our faith is in vain” (1 Cor 5:17) – but I do love Advent. The season of Advent, which begins the church’s liturgical year (not Jan. 1), sometimes get lost in the sprint between holidays. It seems like the Halloween and All Saints’ costumes have just gone away when Mariah Carey emerges from her summertime slumber and Christmas music, shopping and bright decorations dominate our senses until Christmas Day. One sympathizes with the Grinch – “oh the noise, noise, noise, noise!” It’s exhausting.

C.S. Lewis reflects on this reality in his very funny (if not equally cynical) essay, “What Christmas Means to Me.” He writes, “Long before Dec. 25th everyone is worn out – physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.”

Slow down, wait, prepare

But this is entirely the point of Advent: Slow down, wait and prepare. The church, in her wisdom, offers us an entire season of waiting, wonder, anticipation and preparation for the hoped-for but unexpected and surprising coming of Our Lord at Christmas.

Having four children has given me a new appreciation for two things in particular that children do well and that mark the season of Advent – waiting and wonder. Now most people would say that kids do not do well with waiting and, fair enough. If you’ve ever taken a road trip with a car full of children, you’re familiar with the phrase, “Are we there yet?” Or maybe you’ve had a hungry child burst into the kitchen and ask for a snack, only to be told, “No, we’re eating dinner in a bit.” An existential crisis ensues and their hunger is now the exact center of the known universe.

But maybe, just maybe – and hear me out on this – it’s not that children are not good at waiting, it’s that they are, in fact, excellent at waiting. Maybe it is we grownups, always distracted and in a hurry, who do not know how to properly watch and wait and wonder. Much of what passes for patient waiting among adults is actually indifference and forgetfulness. Often, it’s not that we have actually practiced patient waiting for an upcoming event or encounter, it’s that we have intentionally put it out of our minds to avoid waiting altogether. We write things down in our calendars and tell Siri and Alexa to remind us of things precisely so that we do not have to watch and wait. We would much rather forget for a time and have a device do the watching and waiting and remembering for us.

The Italian equivalent of “I can’t wait” is “non vedo l’ora,” literally, “I can’t see the hour.” This strikes me as a more accurate description of what goes on when adults are forced to wait for something – out of sight, preferably out of mind. It is, however, because children can see the hour and that they are in fact fixated on it, that their waiting takes on an active quality.

Children are intentional about waiting

Far from being bad at it, children are intentional about their waiting. They seem impatient in their waiting because they lean into it. Tell a child her birthday is approaching and you won’t hear the end of it until the day arrives. No child ever responded, upon being told their birthday is next week, “put it on the calendar, I’ve got schoolwork to focus on.” No, when children know that a thing is worth looking forward to, it’s not only worth waiting for, it’s worth preparing for. Everything becomes a preparation for the thing awaited; everything builds toward and points to it. It’s not that children don’t wait well. No, it’s that their waiting is accompanied by something else that children are also very good at – wonder.

G. K. Chesterton once remarked, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” Everything is amazing to a child. This is why children do not get bored. Buy a child an expensive toy and in a matter of minutes he’ll be playing with the box it came in. Boredom is an existential crisis, not the absence of interesting or wonder-ful things. Boredom is the result of failing to see things as full of wonder. It is a failure to see everything as a gift. It is a failure to allow ourselves to be surprised. The world is wonder-ful and even more wonderful and surprising indeed is the reality that God became one of us as a baby, born to a woman when no one was watching.

Advent is full of ways to tap into a child’s sense of wonder and anticipation. Sure, my kids are all waiting for Christmas, but celebrating Advent with them has helped our whole family to focus our attention on the great gift of God’s presence at Christmas rather than as something that we sprint mindlessly toward. I will share just a few of the traditions that have inspired wonder-ful waiting in our house.

The tradition of the Jesse Tree is one way to incorporate Scripture and the history of what God has done to prepare us for his coming. As much as we have prepared for Christmas, God has been waiting even longer than we have, like a child, you might say. The creche or Nativity scene is another way to direct a child’s wonder-ful waiting toward the coming of Christ and to work with their imagination (and even their love of animals!). We typically have four or five arranged at any given time around the house during Advent. Occasionally non-biblical characters and action figures make an appearance. After all, why shouldn’t Buzz Lightyear come and adore the Christ Child? How much does God love us? To infinity, and … well, you know the rest.

The “O Antiphons” are an ancient and powerful way to “prepare the way of the Lord” as we hear proclaimed in the liturgy at the beginning of Advent. They are also a great way for kids to learn the many titles of the Messiah and even learn a little Latin along the way as a mnemonic device. The first letter of each of the Latin titles forms the phrase “ero cras,” which is Latin for “tomorrow, I will be (there)” Pretty wonderful, right?

Wonder-ful waiting

Children wait with wonder-ful anticipation and hope. Advent is the perfect season for a child. It gives them (and therefore the adults in their lives) the kind of active waiting and sense of wonder called for by the birth of the Messiah. Advent comes on quietly, almost sneakily – not unlike when Our Lord came among us quietly, sneakily, like one “slipping behind enemy lines,” again, to borrow a phrase from Lewis.

It is easy to miss – again, like the presence of Our Lord who so often comes to us in ways that are easy to miss – a child, the poor, the ordinary veil of bread and wine. If there is anything at all that we ought to prepare well for, it is less so the hustle and bustle and more so the encounter with Emmanuel, God with us. Ironically, this is one of the messages of Christmas, as if God says to us, “while you were all busy about your business, I did the unexpected!” During this Advent season, may we watch and wait with the wonder of a child, for the ways in which God will be born into our lives. May we see wonder in the waiting at what God is doing and in what he is about to do. Prepare the way! Are we there yet? Are we there yet…?