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Every year, people debate: What’s better — the anticipation of Christmas or Christmas Day? The anticipation of the gifts is sweet and exciting. Once the gifts are open, the mystery is revealed, and they begin to wane in their value. But the waiting makes no sense without the opening. How to resolve the tension?
This Sunday’s readings (the Second Sunday of Advent, Year A) suggest that this question of waiting and arriving is a key question in our spiritual life, too. Life is about waiting, and patience is a crucial virtue for human happiness.
The first reading is about the long wait of salvation history, a wait that still isn’t over. It begins with the announcement that “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” Anyone who has done a Jesse Tree knows how long it took for that prophecy to be fulfilled. It lasted for millennia, a long march of ancestors and events out of which the Messiah eventually emerged.
After the long wait of salvation history, the waiting ended — with the conception of Jesus and nine more months of waiting. That period of waiting ended — with the birth of Jesus, who, as a baby, was not ready to begin his public ministry. So more waiting followed, culminating in the “prophet of waiting,” John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is featured in the Gospel today. He expresses the attitude we should have as we wait for the Lord. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he says, “make straight his paths.” He also tells the Pharisees, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” He wants us to live our lives differently as we wait, to anticipate as we wait for the life of justice described in today’s readings.
At long last, John baptizes Jesus. But the waiting doesn’t end. After that comes Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Then the wait through his years-long public ministry. Then his death. Then the wait for his resurrection. Then the wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then the wait as the Church spread throughout the world.
Today, the waiting continues. The first reading describes a world to come where “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.”
This is a vision of the order Christ intends to restore: the order of Eden. Pope Benedict XVI makes the point in his book Jesus of Nazareth that Christ himself experienced this in his lifetime. After being baptized by John, Christ went into the desert, where he was “with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
But the fullness of this vision is yet to come. We’re still waiting.
Life really is like the long wait we experienced as children, looking at the beautiful mystery of those Christmas presents and longing to see them opened.
Perhaps the high point of this tension between waiting and receiving is the very act of opening the presents. That’s when the “What could it be?” anticipation is at its highest, and the “Wow, look at what I got!” surprise of seeing the gifts is intermingled with it, all at once.
Pope Benedict says that eternity is more like a moment that endures than like a series of events that drag on. The “opening the presents” feeling of Christmas morning might just be a small foretaste of the greatness of heaven — where we will be constantly in that moment of revealing the mystery, and never at the moment where the surprise wears off.
So let’s produce fruits of true repentance in high-fever anticipation for the great unwrapping morning in heaven.
Photo: fdmount, Flickr Creative Commons
The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).