Keeping Vigil in Advent

In a very interesting essay, James Sabak compares and contrasts Christian liturgical vigils with the secular vigils that spring up in the wake of tragedies and massacres.(1)  He argues in part that the latter are reactive in character: they respond *to* events but they do not have the anticipatory character of Christian vigils such as the one on Holy Saturday or even vigils for the deceased which are celebrated with a view to resurrection.  His essay got me thinking.  Part of what follows below was inspired by his essay; other parts are taken from an email response I provided to a reporter who had questions about Advent (see also Bruce Morrill’s recent post here on PT).

Apart from the important distinction between disaster rituals that are reactive and liturgical rituals that are anticipatory, perhaps there is also something to be said about the nature of “waiting” in present American society.

I am thinking of crowds that gather to greet their sports teams when these teams have won championships on the road or of the lines that form outside movie theaters or rollercoasters or in supermarkets.  My local supermarket, for example, promises that if you are the fourth customer in line at the register your groceries are free.

The point is NOT to wait as though there were anything of use or value in waiting.  Waiting is simply tolerated as the price to pay for the experience one wants: to see the team or movie, to ride the rollercoaster, or leave the supermarket without being arrested for theft.

Liturgically, living in the already and not-yet, waiting is at least part of the point I think.  If waiting is mistaken for the whole point, then people might be tempted to withdraw from their responsibility for the world (Gaudium et spes, 43).  If the principle of waiting is ignored, then one succumbs to temptations to build utopia here and now (Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology, 5).

I say these things as someone who (also) looks for the shortest lines at toll booths and cash registers but if on the whole “waiting” is something that culturally makes no sense then the meaning and import of liturgical vigils is beclouded—to say nothing of the secular vigils that do not even operate in a nominally eschatological framework.  These latter vigils are defaulted into being generally reactive in character in a culture that does not value waiting.

In this season of Advent, it is worth noting that the “advent” in question is twofold: it is a commemoration of the coming of the Lord as a baby in Bethlehem but also a looking forward to—a waiting in vigil for—the final advent of the Lord, the Parousia or Second Coming.  This year’s Sunday readings, for example, include a cry to God to rend the heavens and rescue the people (1st Sunday) and a call for valleys to be raised so a highway may be made for God’s arrival (2nd Sunday).  These readings certainly have a bearing on events in Bethlehem—all three Synoptic accounts of the baptism of Jesus report that the heavens were opened as he came out of the water, for example.  Yet Christ who has come is also *coming,* as the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent indicates: watch!

Advent is about preparation for Christmas but primarily in the sense of assessing how one has welcomed the Christ who has come and one’s readiness for the Christ who is coming.  Recalling God’s gracious gift to humanity, the Son, Christians give gifts which means buying or making the items to give away.  Just as sacraments presuppose a life of faith (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 59), the gifts one gives are to be consonant with one’s way of living if they are to have meaning.  For example, a card drawn in crayon by a five-year old daughter to her mother that reads “I love you momy” may well be more meaningful to the mother than the $20,000 car given to her by her husband whom she knows to be unfaithful.  All too quickly, consumer culture equates meaning with the price in dollars of a gift.

In this season, shoppers sometimes go about their tasks with enthusiasm.  Etymologically, this word derives from a Greek phrase meaning “possessed by (a) god.”  One wonders which gods are possessing the crowds on Black Friday.  “Thusia” by itself can mean “sacrifice” or “offering.”  God has offered Godself to humanity in Jesus.  The appropriate return-gift is a life offered to God: a life of compassion, forgiveness, and promotion of justice.  These are the themes to ponder in Advent.

(1) James Sabak, “‘Keeping Vigil’ and the Response of a Believer to Grief and Suffering,” Horizons 44 / 2 (December 2017): 342-368.

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