Waiting in December
In a season of waiting, use prayer to focus on your ministry to serve
For most of this past year, I have been living in St. Louis. It is an old city that has accumulated countless traffic lights over the years. There are so many that people sometimes ignore them. Drivers may slow down as they approach an intersection with a red light and then race through. Police patrols are nowhere to be seen. But even if they were to witness a violation, they might let it pass. Many would argue that there are more stoplights than necessary and too many to serve the common good.
On my way to celebrate 6:15 a.m. Sunday Mass, I seem to catch every red light on the road. Whether I take the direct route up Grand Boulevard or an alternate one to avoid some of the lights, I always have to stop and wait. There is rarely cross-traffic at this hour. I wait as a formality so that I may not be ticketed if, perhaps, a dutiful cop sees me. I wait, move a block or two and then wait yet again. “Why,” I say to myself, “do we have to put up with such ridiculous delays?”
But rather than complaining to myself, I would be wise to talk to God. I have much for which to thank, praise and beseech him. I am grateful for my life as a priest now for almost 40 years. I am healthy and reasonably happy. I face challenges every day, which with the Spirit’s guidance, have proven surmountable. But rather than say a prayer during these unwanted pauses, I curse the city for multiplying stoplights. There is something akin here, I believe, to our experience of Advent.
Catalogue of Delays
Advent, which covers most of December, may be experienced as a catalogue of delays. First, it signifies the long stretch Christians have endured since the Lord’s ascension. We wait for Jesus’ return to justify the sacrifices we have made to love others as he loved us. Each year we light the Advent wreath hoping to draw our Savior back.
More than rewarding our efforts, we wait for Jesus to bring on the full reign of God. In 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an American sociologist published a seminal essay entitled “The End of History?” His thesis was that with the end of the Cold War civilization was reaching its culmination. Democratic capitalism had proven capable of overpowering the illusions of socialism and, apparently, all other politico-economic systems. It would shortly fulfill human hopes for a utopia.
Of course, events of the last 30 years have shown that strife continues in every part of the world save, perhaps, Antarctica. Asia is bleeding with religious conflict. Africa is rife with thug militias. The Americas have pockets of violence in northern cities and southern countrysides. What is more, it seems that capitalism itself sows the seeds of warfare by overproducing armaments.
Don’t Forget to Pray
“Why does he delay?” we ask, not completely satisfied with the pat answer of giving people time to reform. With time passing, conditions seem to worsen, not improve. The polarization of groups today is especially disconcerting. Whether in American society or among nations and populations in other parts of the world, people have great difficulty getting along. They often find it difficult to approve of anything that the other political party or social group does. But can we not see the benefit of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointees? And did not Barack Obama maintain a humane (and Christian) migrant policy?
Amidst this clamor, like mine at stoplights, we may forget to pray. We might say the simplest of ancient prayers, Marana tha! (“Come, Lord”), knowing that Christ has established himself as king over all inimical forces. But too often we forget that this prayer even exists.
Often during December we wait in lines at stores as well. Even if we shop for Christmas gifts early or through the internet, checkout lines are long when we go to buy mouthwash. The people around us may become testy. Their children may show signs of tiredness, or their budgets may not cover the merchandise in their basket. Rather than bemusing ourselves with their predicaments, we could say a prayer for them.
The Gift He Gave
We can pray that the children, some of whom will surely see the 22nd century, may grow up in a more peaceful world. We can pray that the shoppers may not become overinvested in the consumerist culture. No matter what current captains of culture say, everyone knows that the world is preparing to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. He had no concern for money other than to pay the Temple tax. The gift he gave was himself in mercy, friendship and prayer. We can pray that our fellow shoppers, as well as ourselves, learn to follow his example more closely.
For priests, waiting during Advent has a unique dimension. We wait for penitents to make their confessions. Sometimes the confession lines take hours to diminish as one person after another unburdens himself or herself. They tell us not only their sins but their worries and irritations as well. More frustrating, however, are those who see themselves as more sinned against than sinning. We want to tell these people to get on with it, and sometimes we do. But we also know that they are God’s children who have been hurt and sorely need understanding.
As when we are waiting for a red light to change, we do well to pray for these restless souls among whom we have to include ourselves. We pray that they come to know intimately the Prince of Peace whom even the mercantile world recognizes. We ask God to open their hearts to him and to enable them to trust that he is much closer to them than they can imagine.
One time in December when we should not mind waiting, or asking other people to wait, is for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, most parishes have capitulated to popular demand. They have moved up the hour of the service to accommodate people growing tired from waiting. But this wait is both edifying and instructive if we allow it to touch us. After all, we are waiting on the Lord who promised to come at an inopportune time. He also promised that the wait would be worthwhile. In Luke’s Gospel he says that when he arrives, he will change places with the servants who remained alert on his behalf. He will serve them a banquet justifiably called “heavenly.”
Fighting off sleepiness to greet the Lord at midnight counteracts the overindulgence that has come to characterize the season. Archbishop Charles Chaput recently said that you cannot have both comfort and happiness for very long. The former is borne of material prosperity and continually needs reinforcement. The latter comes from overcoming hardship to realize life’s spiritual goals. It is more lasting. Waiting for Christ to come in the middle of the night opens up space to meditate upon the enormity of the Incarnation event. After all, we are celebrating God’s definitive entrance into our world. He has already overcome the destructive force and ultimate desolation of death. Awaiting his return in glory cannot but fill us with anticipatory joy.
The meditation allows us additional satisfying moments of consciousness. Luke’s Gospel describes his being born at midnight in a stable for animals as if he were a poor migrant today. The announcement of his birth brought joy to lonely shepherds keeping watch in the cold. It blazoned the heavens like a thunderstorm bringing hope for redemption to a weary nation.
Not only did the Son of God make his debut 2,000 years ago, he also comes to us in body and blood in the Eucharist. This happens in the Mass soon to be celebrated as well as in every other one. We have him as our companion and, better yet, our very sustenance.
The meditation should end with our waiting as a prefiguring of Christ’s coming at the end of time. These moments challenge us to remember what is at the heart of the season — certainly not Christmas presents or even the reunion of relatives. No, what is most significant is the Lord’s fulfilling his promise to be with us at all times.
Another experience I had while living in St. Louis was visiting the sick. Twice weekly I celebrated Mass at a local hospital and anointed those patients who had requested the sacrament.
Sometimes as I entered a room, medical personnel was there administering a treatment. The only thing that I could do was to retreat. But rather than wait anxiously outside the room, I took out my telephone to dial the Liturgy of the Hours. Then I proceeded to pray Midday Prayer. It was a pause that refreshed. Not only did I fulfill an obligation, but I also became more collected for the pastoral visit. I have become convinced that this is the proper way for priests to wait. Prayer focuses on what we are doing. In it, we thank God for the opportunity to serve. Through it, we ask the Spirit’s presence to the people to whom we are called to minister.
FATHER CARMEN MELE, OP, has a licentiate in moral theology from the Angelicum in Rome and a doctorate of ministry from Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.
Advent as a period of training
“The liturgy of Advent, filled with constant allusions to the joyful expectation of the Messiah, helps us to understand the fullness of the value and meaning of the mystery of Christmas. It is not just about commemorating the historical event, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea. Instead, we must understand that our whole life should be an ‘advent,’ in vigilant expectation of Christ’s final coming. To prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, will come one day to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize his presence in the events of daily life. Advent is then a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come and who continuously comes.”
— General Audience, Pope St. John Paul II, Dec. 18, 2002