In a letter to his fiancee Maria von Wedmeyer from prison in December 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
Celebrating Advent means being able to wait. Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten...Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting—that is, of hopefully doing without—will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment...For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world we must wait.
It is hard for me to imagine Bonhoeffer writing about the impatience of the world in 1943. To us in 2017, that world seems like it must have been an infinitely slower, more relaxed, more manageable, nearly old-fashioned time. For after all, this was all before the age of the internet, cell phones, smartphones, social media, microwaves...even before most households had televisions. Oh how many of us long for a time as the 1940s when things were so much slower.
Though perhaps slower by today's standards, the 1940s were still obviously a time of widespread impatience. Impatience with the lack of progress expected to come from the close of WWI. Impatience with the world scene of rumblings toward another great war. Impatience, no doubt, with Jesus, whose promised return seemed to tarry far too long. In that sense, though technology has changed by leaps and bounds in the intervening decades, human nature has not changed much at all. We are still impatient. We are still dissatisfied. We are still longing after those things which we feel like we deserve but do not yet possess.
The season of Advent is one of intentional waiting. Such waiting has always been difficult but is today more difficult than ever. Our culture is in an insane rush to get straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas, with Black Friday serving only as a springboard to get all those Christmas gifts as soon as possible. Why wait? Have what you want now! Among Christian culture, there is little to separate us in many places from the secular culture that surrounds us. We, too, are wont to go straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas. No lines, no waiting. No patience. No anticipation. No need for the outdated "Catholic" season of Advent.
Except that there is a need for Advent. We need to slow down. We need to be deliberate and think about the history, implications, and blessings of the coming King, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate again. We need to do this, not necessarily for Advent's sake, but because the whole of the Christian life is one of waiting, anticipation and hope. Our hope is not in the societal sense of "wishing" for something to happen, hope in the sense of faith in the promises of God, which are certain to come to pass in his time. Precisely because God's time is not our time is why we must practice waiting—why we need a time of Advent to hone our skills. If we can't bear to faithfully wait through three or four weeks of Advent season, our spiritual life is going to be miserable.
Advent is then, in a sense, a training ground for the rest of our Christian walk, our life in miniature.
photo credit: Simon Matzinger