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This Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A, is a stark contrast with the previous Sundays of Advent.
Instead of John the Baptist hurling prophecies by the Jordan, we have John the prisoner sending friends with questions, and instead of Jesus and Paul sounding an urgent wakeup call, we have St. James telling us to settle down and wait.
This week teaches us that life is not a climactic cataclysm of dramatic events. It is a long wait through incremental changes.
Sunday’s readings show what real life is like. Yes, John was a “voice crying out in the desert;” but he was also huddled in a dungeon asking “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” Yes, he spoke truth to power; but he also sat helpless in prison waiting for the powerful to decide when to end his life.
John taught us that one one day Jesus will lower the boom on us in a time of fiery corporate punishment. But in the meanwhile, Jesus spent his time handing out individual restoration.
Jesus will lay an axe to the roots of our trees; but first, he will make “the lame walk.” He will destroy everyone who does not bear good fruit and “clear the threshing floor;” but first he will cleanse lepers and forgive sins. He will see that the “brood of vipers” get their comeuppance; but first, he will make sure that “the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”
Notice what is happening in Advent, week three: Jesus’s message is no longer that the end is at hand, but that the waiting will continue, only filled with new meaning.
The truth is, fiery confrontation and the consummation of our life’s purpose is not what our lives are made of. Life is made up of waiting, healing and hoping. This is true throughout the spiritual life.
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 a baby who was in no position to begin a public ministry. So more waiting followed, until at long last, John baptized Jesus. But that Advent was followed by a Lent — Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Then the wait through his years-long public ministry left John asking questions.
At the end of the wait came Jesus’s death, followed by the wait for his Resurrection, then for his Ascension, then for his sending of the Holy Spirit. After the Holy Spirit came, we waited for Scripture, waited for the Church to get its bearings and spread, and we continue to wait through Church history for the Second Coming.
We wait in the same way all our lives.
We start out in the womb, followed by years in which we do very little for anybody as we long to grow up, waiting through education, and waiting through mistakes and course corrections. When we are finally adults, the waiting continues in between the significant events that only occasionally punctuate life.
And the waiting doesn’t just dominate lifespans. It dominates every day. We spend our life sleeping, waiting for other people, waiting for meals, waiting for meetings to begin and waiting for meetings to end — waiting for bedtime. It even happens at Mass. We are wait for the Gospel, then the consecration, then communion, then the final blessing.
In fact, you could say that the art of life is the art of waiting. St. James sees life this way, and says the key is patience.
“Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” he says. “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it … You too must be patient.”
To be patient, he says, you must “make your hearts firm,” “do not complain” and be constantly aware that “the Judge is standing before the gates.”
For James, life means waiting, and waiting means bearing up to hardship over time without breaking. John the Baptist is the master of this kind of waiting. Jesus points out that he is not a “reed swayed by the wind,” but a man who stands up straight to the forces of the world.
He is not spending his time “wearing fine clothing in royal palaces.” He spends it witnessing to Jesus among the people.
The waiting isn’t in vain.
In the first reading, Isaiah uses metaphorical imagery to explain the transformation Christ would bring: “The desert and the parched land will exult. … They will bloom with abundant flowers.”
A dead place will fill with flowers; the “glory of Lebanon will be given them.” Go to Jerusalem today and you will find that this has not occurred. They are still waiting. But the flowering God promised has already begun in people all over the world. He brings the fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity — and patience.
These are the virtues that make certain our waiting ends at our final goal, when Jesus will come and “strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak.” He will “say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong; fear not!”
Never forget: It’s Christmas that we’re waiting for.
In my house we give our children an extra reason to rejoice on Gaudete Sunday. The Third Sunday of Advent is when we put presents under the tree. The anticipation can be almost unbearable, but they have faith that they are waiting for something good, and it fills them with joy. As we wait through life, we need exactly that faith.