Yesterday marked the beginning of the Christian season of Advent, a time each year set aside specifically for hopeful waiting. But do we even know what waiting is any more?
This year, around early September, I couldn't help but notice that the stores were already setting up their Christmas decorations - right alongside Halloween and fall decor. There's something about seeing a skeleton Mary and Joseph with a baby Jesus in a manger while three scarecrows come bearing gifts that just makes you wonder what this world is thinking any more.
But the point is - here it was just barely September, and we were already starting to think about Christmas, already trying to usher in the season. As soon as the Halloween candy sold out, the Christmas candy went in. As soon as the last zombie was moved to the clearance aisle, the already-inflated Santa was moved over a few skids to take its place. And come December 26, as we all well know, the last few candy canes will make way for heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and cheap little stuffed animals with "I love you" written across their chests.
We just can't wait any more to get to the next "big" thing. Our lives have become one frantic thing right after another, and I have to be honest...there aren't a lot of us waiting for Christmas any more. Waiting for it to be over, maybe....
Even our Christian practice of Advent has essentially been taken over by the holiday excitement crowd. Families are sitting down each night, opening one more door on their Advent calendar, drawing themselves one day closer to...Santa Claus. That's right. Santa Claus. As if this period of waiting was about nothing more than getting us to Christmas morning. To shards of wrapping paper scattered around the room. To the sounds of boxes being torn open, shouts of glee, and frenzied running from one relative's house to the next to the next until Christmas itself passes us by before we've even had time to realize...
...that it's not about shards of wrapping paper scattered around the room. It's about strands of straw tenderly gathered into a manger.
...that it's not about sounds of boxes being torn open, shouts of glee.... It's the agonizing pain of childbirth, followed by the incredible first cry of a newborn baby boy.
...that it's not about running from one relative's house to the next to the next.... It's about journeying to a manger, bearing meager gifts of this world while knowing that a greater gift has come.
I don't know how we settled on four weeks. I don't know how we decided that four weeks was just the right amount of time to prepare our hearts, minds, and lives for the coming of the baby Jesus. Mary had more than nine months to prepare (when the angel spoke, he said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you," which means she was not pregnant at the angel's announcement). It probably became more real when Elizabeth birthed John, which was probably about three months before the birth of Jesus (or about the same time that the skeleton-scarecrow-baby Jesus manger scene was going up in all the major retail stores). Maybe it was the lack of medical science in those days, and nobody really knew how to calculate those nine months, so maybe it was about this time that the family started really preparing, expecting the baby to come "any day now." ...any day now...
But we have four weeks. Four short little weeks that we set aside at this time each year for the waiting. The hopeful waiting. The joyful anticipation. Not expectation, for nobody knew what was coming. Nobody knew what Christmas Day was going to be like. Nobody knew what to expect from this little baby boy. But anticipation, because they knew He was coming. And they knew there was going to be something incredible about Him.
That's what we're waiting for. In this Advent season, we're letting our imaginations run wild with just what it might be that's so incredible about this little boy, this Son of God, this baby Jesus. We're trying to fathom just what it might mean when God Himself is born into this world in a human body. No cheating. It's not about what we know about this baby Jesus, living in a time that looks back on His birth. No, it's about what we can possibly imagine about Him, as if we were waiting for the first time to see what He's really going to be like.
Don't let this season of waiting pass you by. Don't let it get caught up in all the trappings of a world that's been so busy expecting Christmas this year that it's forgotten how to anticipate it. Don't be drawn away from the stillness by all the craziness that marks this season for so many of us.
Embrace the waiting. For it could be, it just could be, that any day now...
...a child is born.