Friday, December 15, 2006


'Every tear brings the Messiah closer.' For centuries, religious people offered that prayer to God while they waited for the Messiah to come. As a child, growing up in the Canadian prairies, i prayed it too, unconsciously, with my family, as we waited for Christmas. Advent was special season for us. We felt the joy of Christmas, but as an anticipation that, while longed-for, already coloured our days wonderfully.

My mother set both the tone and the rituals for our Christmas preparations. We had an Advent wreath, plus a crib with an empty manger. The manger was empty both of the baby Jesus and of any straw for Him to lie on. We had to produce the straw, one piece at a time, by doing good deeds and making sacrifices during Advent.

Every time we sacrificed something for someone else, we were allowed to put a piece of straw into the crib, to make a bed for Jesus when He came at Christmas. If we'd done a good deed during the day, we could put a piece of straw in the manger before the family rosary each night.

Beyond this, my mother had other, less spiritual, rituals. Throughout Advent the house smelled of baking. Our old wood-stove churned out pan after pan of Christmas delights, mostly cookies and cakes, but none of them were to be touched until Christmas Eve. Christmas decorations were readied, but not put up until a day before Christmas.

The idea was that we were preparing to celebrate and we could, literally, smell and see the joy, but it was not to be tasted, yet. Advent for us was a time of sublimation in the very face of the feast, a time when the coming joy was palatable and near enough to be both touched and smelled, but our task was still to prepare ourselves for it. The tasting was to come later and all the waiting and anticipation made that tasting all the sweeter.

In essence, this expressed the meaning of Advent: For something to be sublime there must first be sublimation; fasting is the necessary prelude to feasting; greatness of soul is contingent on first nobly carrying tension; great joy is not experienced if one is not first properly prepared; and what's truly divine can only appear after a certain kind of gestation. Advent is about proper waiting.

It should not be confused with Lent. The crimson-purple of Advent is not the black-purple of Lent. The former symbolises yearning and longing, the latter repentance. The spirituality of Advent is not about repentance, but about carrying tension without prematurely resolving it so that what's born in us and in our world does not short-circuit the fullness that comes from rejecting love's rhythms.

How does carrying tension help lead to the sublime? It does it by helping to produce the heat required for generativity. An image may be helpful here. John of the Cross, in his book The Living Flame of Love, compares our pre-Advent selves to green logs that have been thrown into a fire, the fire of love. Green logs, as you know, do not immediately burst into flame. Rather, being young and full of moisture, they sizzle for a long time before they reach the kind of kindling temperature and absorb the fire that is around them so as to participate in it. So too the rhythm of love. Only the really mature can truly burst into flame within community. The rest of us are still too self-contained, too green, too selfish, too damp. We don't burst into flame when love surrounds us. Rather our dampness helps extinguish the communal flame.

What helps change this is precisely the tension in our lives. In carrying properly our unfulfilled desires we sizzle and slowly let go of the damness of selfishness. In carrying tension we come to kindling temperature and are made ready for love. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, as a scientist, noticed that sometimes when you put two chemicals in a test-tube they do not automatically unite. They only merge at a higher temperature. They must first be heated to bring about unity.

In one of her early books, Annie Dillard shares how she once learned a lesson, the hard way, about the importance of waiting. She had been watching a butterfly slowly emerge from its cocoon. The oh-so-slow process of transformation was fascinating, but at a point, she grew impatient. She took a candle and heated the cocoon, though only slightly, in order to speed up things. It worked. The butterfly emerged a bit more quickly, but because the process had been unnaturally rushed, it was born with wings that were not properly formed and it was not able to fly.

The lesson wasn't lost on Dillard. She understood immediately what was wrong, a certain chastity had been violated. She had short-circuited Advent.

One of the motifs we celebrate in this season is the idea that the Messiah must be born of a virgin. Why? Is it beneath Jesus to be conceived and born in the normal way? Sometimes those false understandings have been put forth. The real reason, however, for connecting Advent and virginity is quite different: first, it underscores that Jesus, being the incarnate son of God, does not have a human father. Second, and crucial in terms of the spirituality of Advent, is the idea that the Messiah could only come forth from a virgin's womb because for something "divine" to be born, a proper time of waiting, a proper chastity, must first take place.

Chastity is not something specific to sex. It's about how we experience all of reality in general. To be chaste is to live in such a way as to be fully and properly respectful of others, nature and God. Chastity, properly defined, means living in such a way that our own needs, desires, agendas, and impatience do not get in the way of letting gift be gift, other be other, and God be god. Obviously this depends upon proper respect and proper waiting.

We can learn this by looking at its antithesis. We lack chastity when, for whatever reason (lack of respect, lack of reverence, impatience, selfishness, callousness, immaturity, undisciplined desire) we relate to others in such a way that they cannot be fully who they are, according to their own unique rhythms and preciousness. We do this when we short circuit patience and respect.

In essence, Annie Dillard's metaphor says it all: there's a fault in our chastity when we put a candle to the cocoon to unnaturally pressure the process.

And, as is obvious, the key element in all this is waiting. Chastity is 90 per cent about proper waiting. It's for this reason that one of the rich metaphors of Advent is that of preparing a virgin's womb so that the Divine can be born in a proper way. Advent calls us to patience, carrying the frustration that we suffer when we have to wait for what we desire.

In Jewish apocalyptic literature there are a number of wonderful refrains that try to teach us this. They give us the idea that, before the messiah can be conceived, gestated and born, there must first be proper time of waiting. In shorthand, these aphorisms express the theology of Advent: "People are always in a hurry; God is never in a hurry." "Every tear brings the Messiah closer." "It is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of the spirit is brought forth."

Carlo Caretto, one of the great spiritual writers of recent times,spent many years alone - a hermit in the Sahara desert. During these long, quiet years, he tried to hear what God was saying to us. In one of his books, written from this desert solitude, he suggests that perhaps the most important thing that God is trying to tell us today, especially in Western culture, is this: Be patient! Learn to wait - for everything: each other, love, happiness, God. The message of the great Advent figures (Mary, John the Baptist and Isaiah) is the same.

And waiting is also very much about hope. To wait properly is to live in hope.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, as even his critics admit, was a man of hope. Indeed his whole vision of things is generally criticised for being too hopeful. So, in trying to explain hope and Advent, allow me a story about Teilhard.

Teilhard was a scientist, and a good one, but he was also a Christian, a priest, and a man whose ultimate vision of life was formed by the Gospels. Central to his whole system of thought was his rock-bottom belief that ultimately all of history, cosmic and human, would come together, in Christ, in one community of life and love (as promised by Jesus and as summarised in the early Christian hymn, Ephesians, 1, 3-10). the vision was the wide framework within which he ultimately set his scientific theories. But he was surrounded by colleagues, both Christian and secular, who had a far less hopeful view of things. One day he was challenged: "You have an enchanted view of history, believing that everything will one day culminate in a wonderful 'kingdom' of peace and love, but suppose we blow up the world in a nuclear war, what happens to your scheme of things then?"

His response to that question is a textbook definition of hope: "If we blow up the world it would be a great tragedy because it wopuld set things back millions of years. But history will still one day culminate in a kingdom of peace and love, not because my theory says so, but because God promised it and in the Resurrection He has shown the power to bring this about, despite the things we do." That's hope, to be able to say : "It might take a million years or so, but it will happen because God promised it."

Hope is not wishful thinking, the simple longing for something wonderful to happen to us. Neither is it optimism; a natural temperament, however pleasant, which is perenially upbeat and always sees the positive side of things. Finally, hope is also not a positive diagnosis based upon a shrewd assessment of the facts. Jim Wallis once quipped: "Put not your faith in CNN!" One does not ultimately base one's hope on whether the world situation seems to be improving or worsening. Hope does not go up and down like the stock market because, in the end, it is not based upon empirical facts. Hope is believing in the promise of God and believing that God has the power to fulfil that promise.

What is that promise? God has promised that history will one day come together in paradise, a community of life around Christ and in God, within which there will be no tears and no death. This will be a community that takes its very breath from love, justice, peace, friendship and affection, and shared delight in the Holy Spirit.

And what power will bring this about? The power of the ressurection of Jesus, the power to bring a dead body back to life, to redeem what's been lost, to straighten crooked lines, and to bring people together, despite hatred, sin, and selfishness. To live in hope is to live in the face of that promise and that power, and to fundamentally shape both our memories and our future. To hope is to look back on our lives and see no need to count the losses, underline the hurts, play the victim, or stew in bitterness because all our wounds and losses can be redeemed as part of a much greater promise. the same holds true for our future. All our plans and schemes must reflect the wider plan of God and we, like Teilhard, should be prepared to live in great patience as we wait for the finished symphony.

Mary, Jesus' Mother, shows us hope. Not only did she believe the promise; she became pregnant with it, gestated it, and gave it her own flesh. She went through the pains of childbirth to give it reality, and then nursed a fragile new life into a powerful adulthood that saved the world. In that, she needs imitation, not admiration. Advent is the season for us to imitate that hope and, like Mary, to give real flesh to God by learning in patience how to wait.

Ronald Rolheiser, 'The Key to Joy is waiting', The Catholic Herald Advent Supplement 2006, 3-4.

No comments: