Advent: Misplaced Impatience

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A small but important note that it’s “fruit” and not “fruits” of the Spirit. Paul is presenting us with an ideal of a well-integrated Christian individual, whose life is a multi-segmented fruit (I like to think of segments of citrus fruits). There is nothing that helps to make sure that patience segment of the fruit is healthy than to have to wait.

It’s no accident that when Advent as a separate season began to emerge, some of the imagery attached to its spirit of waiting was agrarian. The process of planting seed, nurturing, watching for rains, tending through growth, watching for ripening, and then harvesting is a process that even today is largely on its own timeclock. We can do certain things to urge or prompt the process, but ultimately it’s a waiting game. A landscape architect friend of mine once pointed out that attempts to create plants that come to maturity quickly most often result in plants that are not strong, not resistant to disease, producing nutrient-poor and tasteless fruit.

Even if you are an avid outdoor gardener, even one who plants vegetables or herbs, it’s not likely that you have the same sense of near-complete dependency on the success of the growing season and crops that people in agrarian lifestyles do. In our increasingly-urban world, most of us don’t have our days governed by an agrarian occupation, so we don’t have that context to help us be or become more naturally patient. It’s been only natural, I think that especially in recent decades we’ve turned to Elizabeth and Mary—expectant mothers—as core Advent images of waiting and patience that we can grasp from our own immediate experience.

Many segments of our surrounding culture are driven by impatience, as we are presented with ever-quicker ways to accomplish a task. (No need to waste precious seconds keying in the security code for your smartphone—your thumbprint will now unlock it. You could save two or three minutes every year.) The desire to make communication more efficient has resulted in a multiplicity of modes through which we can communicate, often with the counter-productive need to go to multiple portals to check if a communication has been received or responded to someplace different than where you sent it. Of course the modern kitchen has benefited from time-saving. Everything from the microwave to the instant pot to the coffee pod brewer to pre-prepped meals (along with the mounds of packaging trash they generate). I wonder if I’m the only one who looks around and wonders where all this time I’ve saved has vanished to? What other, better things have I accomplished with it?

At one parish in my past, we offered Advent vespers services. One congregant said that she wished Advent didn’t always come at such a busy time of year. Perhaps it is Advent that calls us to be the most overtly counter-cultural, to resist the temptation to “pre-joice” as much as possible, to watch and to wait for the coming of Christ. December may be the toughest time to put ourselves into mystical time, to get out of the linear flow of chronos. But the healthy fruit we can bear if we exercise this discipline can be rewarding. And, when you get to January, your increased patience will make you more resistant to the ads that promise this pill or that machine or these nutrition shakes will make you look like a fitness model half your age in two weeks. (Results may vary.)

Here I am speaking for myself, but I find that as my life fills up with things to make things more efficient and free me up for other pursuits, I somehow end up still more impatient, scrambling to get things done. To go to a media image even older than I am, it’s Lucy and Ethel working the conveyor belt at the candy company. In the end, the belt ends up working them.

The early Church was incredibly impatient for the coming of Christ in glory. Paul and James had to put speedbumps in front of their impatience in their letters. Of course, Christians who lived in the apostolic age were geographically and temporally nearer to the Resurrection than we are. Given our distance, we may want to ask what benefit Advent’s spirit of waiting can have for us? In a world that may as well put a Santa hat on the Hallowe’en jack-o-lantern, how can we still be impatient for the coming of Christ, even for the celebration of the Incarnation on December twenty-fifth?

As I seek to practice and increase my patience, I simultaneously know that my own multiple impatiences remain, and they tend not to be about the coming of Christ. I have planned to make it something of a new liturgical year resolution to redirect my energies there. In particular, to be impatient to perceive the myriad ways Christ is still made incarnate, and the ways I can utilize my time better to help bring Christ to the world via my own life. I’d like my impatience for Christ’s many presences to open me up to hear angels in my dreams, and to feel the Spirit stir in my own body. Bernard of Clairvaux referred to these third “comings” of Christ—between the first in human flesh and the second at the end of time—as being invisible, but I believe that they are, they must, be both invisible, and very visible to the world around us. As the Spirit increases patience in the fruit of my life, may I also be granted the impatience to seek Christ’s coming this Advent and beyond.

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2 comments

  1. I, too, struggle to defend Advent against its secular opponents. But at the same time, I see emerging a “holiday season” that might become, at some future point in the United States, a replacement for agrarian-based Advent. Consider: The season begins with Thanksgiving Day, when we give thanks for the calendar year now ending. It continues with lights and decorations that signify our determination to fight against the dark–a kind of cosmic battle between good and evil echoing the Book of Revelation. Its high point, of course, is Christmas and its celebration of the Incarnation that continues in mystery in us. This season ends with New Year’s Day (Mary, Mother of God), which may someday become not national hangover day but a day to invoke God’s blessing on the new year and a call, through imitation of Mary, to be ourselves an echo of the Incarnation, to be carriers of the Incarnate One in our time. Maybe.

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