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The Subtle Invitations of Advent

Thomas Friedman once greeted a friend who arrived late for their lunch by saying: “Thank you for being late.”1 Friedman explained that the wait time had given him the opportunity to reflect, to slow down, and to listen to what was going on around him.

Friedman’s perspective is profoundly different from mine. I hate to wait! I have little patience for it. I like control, and waiting leaves me feeling powerless. In a situation like Friedman describes, I’d be annoyed at the person who was late. As I waited, I’d be watching the door while my frustration grew. If the wait dragged on, there is no way my greeting would be: “Thank you for being late.”

Advent is a season of waiting. For me – and perhaps for many of us – it is a spiritual challenge. I’m only half joking when I say that the best thing about Advent is that it’s shorter than Lent. Friedman’s perspective, however, encourages me to look at Advent in a different way. Doing so reveals several subtle invitations that are hidden within this season of waiting.

Advent invites us to wait for the time to be fulfilled.

Some things simply take time. Peonies planted in the fall don’t blossom until spring. The apple tree’s early spring blossoms take months to mature into fruit. We need time to build trust for an acquaintance to become a friend; and we need even longer for a friendship to become deep and lasting. Our ideas need time to mature into plans, and then the plans take time to implement. As Luke describes it, Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for the census. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” (Luke 2:5) The natural order of things requires time. It invites us to wait for the time to be fulfilled.

My spiritual challenge is to learn to wait – even though it leaves me dependent on other people and on circumstances beyond my control. Waiting reveals my incompleteness, and it urges me to acknowledge my need. Advent’s invitation to wait for the time to be fulfilled helps create the sacred inner space that God needs to work. It’s there – in the midst of our weakness and need – that God comes to us . . . in God’s own time and in God’s own unique way.

Advent invites us to cultivate a watchful readiness.

Louis Pasteur was referring to scientific breakthroughs when he said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” He realized that it was his years of scientific training and dedication that prepared him to recognize the surprising insight that led to his breakthrough thinking in immunology. Pasteur’s scientific thinking has a parallel in spiritual awareness: watchful readiness. The prepared mind and heart help us discover meaning and mystery in our everyday experiences. Unless we have cultivated the eyes to see and the dedication to keep looking, we are likely to miss it.

Cultivating a watchful readiness builds on Freidman’s notion of waiting. It begins with slowing down, taking a breath, and tuning in to what’s happening around us. It urges us to shift our focus away from our own efforts and the agenda that consumes our attention and energy. Cultivating a watchful readiness encourages us to develop a broader perspective, to see our efforts in the context of a larger vision, and to open ourselves to new insights and opportunities. It encourages us to engage in daily practices – such as prayer, reading scripture, and simple acts of service – that open our eyes and our hearts to the subtle ways that God lives and moves within and among us.

Advent invites us to be open to surprise.

In Luke’s infancy narrative (Luke 1: 1-2: 40), Gabriel visits two people. First, he appears to the priest Zechariah while he is offering sacrifice in the temple. When Gabriel announces that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, Zechariah doesn’t believe him. In response, Gabriel tells him he will be mute until the events he foretold are “fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1: 8-20) By contrast, when Gabriel appears to Mary, he announces even more dramatic news. Yet, she responds without hesitation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1: 38)

Taken by surprise, Zechariah responded with doubt while Mary trusted Gabriel’s word. How did a young peasant girl cultivate the readiness to embrace Gabriel’s message? Why did that same readiness elude a mature priest – even though the announcement was an answer to his prayer? These are unanswered questions – at least for me. What is clear, however, is that the waiting of Advent encourages us to be open to surprise. It includes being ready to discover God in the most unexpected places and in ways that defy our notions about how God will act.

As I confront the spiritual challenge of waiting and Advent’s subtle invitations, I continue to struggle with seeing waiting the way Friedman does. If you’re late for our lunch, don’t expect a thank you. I’m still working on that . . . What I am beginning to grasp is that it’s futile to tie myself in a knot because I have to wait. I can’t control another person’s arrival, but I can change the way I respond to the time of waiting. I hope Advent helps me cultivate a watchful readiness and the patience I need to wait for the time to be fulfilled. Above all, I hope that whenever God does surprise me, I will be able to emulate Mary’s full-hearted response: “Here I am, your servant, let it be with me according to your will.”

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you reflect on the subtle invitations of Advent:

  • How do you respond in situations that require you to wait?
  • In what ways do you experience waiting as a spiritual challenge?
  • What experience do you have of letting waiting help create a sacred inner space for God to work?
  • In what way is Advent inviting you to enter into watchful readiness?
  • In what way is Advent inviting you to be more open to the surprising ways God is present?

1 Friedman, Thomas L. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016)