(this is an updated version of a post I originally wrote in 2017)
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 impatience in the world in 1943. To us today, that world seems like it must have been an infinitely slower, more relaxed, more manageable, nearly old-fashioned time having more in common with Little House on the Prairie than contemporary America. For after all, this was all before the age of the internet, cell phones, smartphones, social media, microwaves...even before most households had televisions. How many among us long for a simpler time, willing even--we think--to give up modern 'essentials' in the quest for simplicity?
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 fallout of WWI. Impatience with the world scene as it plunged seemingly unavoidably toward another world war. Impatience even with Jesus, whose promised return seemed to tarry far too long, especially in light of the carnage of war and man's utter depravity and selfishness. Honestly, though technology has changed by leaps and bounds in the intervening decades, human nature has not changed at all. We are still impatient, probably more so than ever in our world of instant gratification. We are still dissatisfied with our lives, longing after those things we claim we 'deserve.'
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?" the ads ask us. "Have what you want now!"
Among Christian culture, there is little to separate us from the secular culture that surrounds us. We, too, are in a hurry to go straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas. No lines, no waiting. No patience. No anticipation. No need for the outdated "Catholic" season of Advent. Let's sing Christmas carols right now, we insist with literal or metaphorically clenched fists like Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as we echo her words, "I want it NOW!"
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. We do not share our society's "hope" for a better tomorrow, which is little more than a bare wish based on platitudes and positive thinking. Our hope is certain, a faithful hope in the promises of God, which are sure to come to pass in his time. Precisely because God's timing is not our timing we must practice waiting—and 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 lives are going to be absolutely miserable.
Advent is a training ground for the rest of our Christian walk.
Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash