Advent: watchfulness, waiting and wanting

In Psalm 130, we are taught to pray: “ I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” When I pray this psalm, my imagination takes me to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean.  

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Psalm 130 by Janice Little

Many times in the past 15 years I have sat in the darkness of early morning on a sandy South Carolina beach, with the stars beaming above me, in anticipation of the sun’s imminent appearance above the horizon. With my eyes glued to the distant line that shows separation of sky and sea, I sip my coffee and breathe deeply. And I watch. And I wait. I begin to notice the sound of crashing waves, my breath expanding in my lungs, and the coolness of the sand on my feet. In this watchful waiting, I discover an enlargement.

My longing for the light and warmth and beauty of the sun increases with each passing minute. I yearn for the sun to come. I yearn to see that morning’s unique set of colors and twists and reflections on the water. My desire for the sunrise enlarges as I wait and watch.

I wonder if it is similar to our waiting and watching in Advent. Is there an enlargement that comes with the watchful waiting? As I set apart space and time to wait in hope, do I grow in eager anticipation for the main point God’s coming to us? In the midst of our usual December activities, the Advent season invites us to watchful practices like praying, reading Scripture, tending to the movements of our souls, confession, fasting, and silence. As we receive time for these and other practices that form us in alertness, our longing for the coming of Jesus is enlarged.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” 

The watchers for the morning in Psalm 130 could have been those keeping watch for enemies through the night and hoping for the reprieve of sunlight after their long hours of duty. They watch for the morning with a yearning for rest. These watchers could have also been those Levite priests assigned to initiate the day’s worship at the first sign of dawn. The ancient priests would watch for the morning with a yearning to worship. In both instances, it is desire that marks the waiting and watching. In watchful waiting we learn to want.  

We live in a world of marketing and technology that is intent on shaping our desires. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we are told to want particular friends, ways of life, accomplishments, academic degrees, kinds of knowledge, admiration, foods, bodies, phones, clothes and stuff … so much stuff. The objects of these desires seem limitless and often irrelevant. We are simply trained to want and to want and to want, often without hesitation or question or reflection on the what and the how and the why of that wanting. All this training is shepherded by storytellers advertisers, celebrities, YouTube influencers, politicians and market specialists. And yet, all the while, we might just think we are our own storytellers. That’s part of the nastiness of this web of a consumer world we think we are the creators of our own wants, the authors of our own stories.

Thank You, God, for Advent. Because the Christian vision of the world offers a question mark to all this unfiltered wanting. Our real desire finds its source and aim in God, and all other desires are to be ordered around worship and enjoyment of God the God who comes to us in Emmanuel. We are a people who proclaim God as our storyteller.  And, through the Holy Spirit, the divine story we discover and in which we participate is mediated to us in the Body of Jesus, the Church. In Advent, the Church invites us to watch and to wait for the coming of Jesus. And in this watchful waiting, our truest desire is kindled the desire for the God to whom we belong.

A couple years ago, we began a new breakout group devoted to encountering God and deepening in awareness of God’s wonder-filled, loving presence in our everyday lives at Reality Ministries on Thursdays. Our first meeting began right on target. Nathan Freshwater, our dear neighbor and friend, jumped in right away and said with his usual gusto, “The main point is not that we come to God … come on … the point is that God comes to us. That’s the main point. God comes to us.” YES. As we journey through Advent, may God grant us this vision of the faithfulness and promise of the main point God has come to us, God does come to us, God will come to us again.

In our watchfulness, we don’t bring forth anything that isn’t already at work, but rather we “cultivate the beauty given to us in grace” (a phrase from Maximus the Confessor). Watchfulness implies a slow, careful alertness. It is an attitude of attentiveness. Watchfulness opens us to see the rich radiance of divine grace. Watchfulness is the heart’s awakening to the reality of God. Advent is a season of cultivating this awakening a time to tend to and attend to God’s daily visitation in our lives. 

Through watchfulness, we enlarge our hospitality of God. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, the one chosen to host our Lord, and in her physical body she showed the enlargement of a season of waiting. We don’t control God’s coming, but we make room for God’s coming to transform our entire beings our patterns, our ways of life, our relationships, our thoughts and our desires.

This Advent, we are beckoned to consider what we want. In our watchful waiting, the Holy Spirit re-forms our wanting and fixes our desire on the One in whom all of our deepest wants are satisfied.  

In Advent, as we wait and watch for the coming of Jesus, our desires are aligned more and more with the One who gives all good gifts. Certainly, the seasons in my life in which I have received the time to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus are those in which I have come to truly learn the desire of my heart that deep desire for God and God alone that is often masked by distracting wants. I can pray in truthful yearning, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

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Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

O Come Emmanuel: Free us prisoners

Sitting next to me in another hard, plastic chair is a good-hearted man wearing brightly colored scrubs — colors that label him as guilty of a crime. We’re in a florescent lit room inside the county jail: bare white walls and glass windows, a camera overhead.

There are about a dozen of us in this circle, praying with Advent Scriptures. Messages of waiting, anticipation, expectation are read aloud. Then we discuss, consider: What does it mean to be people of hope? How does hope influence their life inside these walls, even while separated from their children? O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

At a glance, most observers might assume that I’m the only free person in the room. That as a visitor and minister, I’m able to enjoy liberty and live as I wish, in ways that align with the Gospel. But in the following days, the Spirit reminds me I’m not free.

After visiting the jail, I…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Most wonderful time of the year

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  

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Image courtesy pixabay.com

Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.

Maybe these or any number of other things has knocked the wind of you and left you wondering how you will make it through the coming days. Instead of joining in the angels’ exultant song of jubilation, your heart resonates more with “O Come O Come Emmanuel’s” plaintive words of mourning in lonely exile.

If this is you, I’m sorry. Whatever your struggle is, it’s legitimate, and whatever hard feelings it elicits – anxiety, grief, anger or sadness – are real. You’re not Ebenezer Scrooge because you’re unable to marshal the inner resources for holiday cheer this year, you’re just human. Even when you try to focus on the positive and what you’re thankful for instead of what you’ve lost, there is no short-circuiting grief. More and more churches acknowledge this reality and now offer “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” liturgies as spaces of prayer and pastoral care for those who struggle.   

As I’ve been accompanying some loved ones who find this season challenging, it seems the general message offered in mainstream culture, “Be joyful and happy! Holidays are filled with magic and delight!” only serves to highlight the chasm between what they wished they were feeling with what they actually are. It is salt in the wound not only to grieve a loss but then to be fed a steady diet of idealized images of the picture-perfect holiday. The crooning singers advising “let your heart be light” because “from now on your troubles will be out of sight” don’t help matters much.

If you’re living in the uncomfortable gap between the ideal and the real, take heart: this perfect holiday tableau of cheerful families in matching pajamas, gathered around a huge turkey or the Christmas tree, is the invention of marketers trying to sell us stuff. That’s how advertising works: it offers an attractive ideal that we invariably fall short of and then pitches a product or service with the promise that we, too, can achieve that ideal. The commercialization is the cultural water we swim in, so it is hard to separate that American capitalist spin from the Gospel truth of the Feast of the Incarnation. But it’s worth dissecting the cultural overlay from the scriptural narrative – especially if you’re not feeling “merry and bright” this holiday season.

If it is any consolation, if we excavate the original Christmas story out from under the accumulated layers of advertising content, it’s plain to see that the first Christmas would not make a feel-good Hallmark movie. When the culture offers images of jolly Santa and his flying reindeer, or affluent families with toothpaste-commercial smiles opening piles of perfectly wrapped gifts, the Gospels offer the story of Emmanuel, God with us, poor and weak.  

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Image courtesy jesus-passion.com

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were vulnerable and faced great uncertainty as Jews living under brutal imperial occupiers. It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t tension in the family when Mary announced she was pregnant outside of marriage, especially when Mosaic law prescribed she should be stoned. Mary and Joseph weren’t wealthy (as evidenced by their offering in the temple) and lived under heavy taxation (which is why they traveled to Bethlehem for the census). There was no room at the inn for them, and then they fled to Egypt as refugees because of Herod’s ruthless decree to slaughter children. The Lukan author reminds us that when the Christ child was presented in the temple, Mary was told a sword would pierce her heart. Myrrh, one of the gifts of the Magi, was used for embalming and prefigures death.

There is darkness and tumult to this story; however, in churches or culture in general, it doesn’t get much air time in popular depictions of Christmas. Though I understand adapting the narrative to make it kid-friendly, it is a pastoral disservice to make the Christmas story too sanitized and saccharine. Yes, there is rejoicing, new life and good news. And it comes in the midst of the messiness, fear, uncertainty, loss and oppression that maybe resonates with you if you’re not in a head space to sing “be of good cheer!” Christmas is about the birth of God coming in the middle of a lot of turmoil and pain.

The cleaned-up scene in church sanctuary creches or in pastel tones on Christmas cards distances us from the more complicated truth. God was born as a baby into a messy, broken, chaotic world. From a scriptural standpoint, the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with our American cultural clichés and everything to do with the miracle of a light shining in the darkness that is not overcome. Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was killed for his opposition to the Nazis, wrote that “the early Church viewed Christmas as the feast of the great howl of those whose lives have been upended, shaken – the birth is not a romantic wonder, it’s a chancy rescue mission from the borders.”

So if it doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year – take heart that you are not alone. The birth of the Christ child is not supposed to be “a romantic wonder.” Let’s turn off the TV with its constant flash of idealized images of holiday cheer and close the glossy pages of catalogues peddling a pictures of prosperity and glee. And let’s turn back to the original story of this “chancy rescue mission” of how God chose to enter the world as a vulnerable newborn in the midst of great uncertainty and turmoil.

About the Rabble Rouser:

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Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

Rhonda Miska is an apostolic novice with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. After having served as a Jesuit Volunteer, in parish ministry and at retreat/spirituality centers, she is currently in ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Sister Rhonda knows Sister Julia through Giving Voice, a group of Catholic sisters under the age of 50. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.