Today, as we usher in a new year of grace, Jesus tells us to be "watchful" and "alert" (Mk 13:33). But, for what, or for whom are we alertly watching and waiting? We are attentively watching and waiting for nobody other than Jesus Christ himself, whose return, he tells us, will be like that of a man who comes back from a long trip, a return that is not scary for his faithful servants, the ones who are not found sleeping when he arrives. The eager watching and waiting of the faithful servant is not an excruciating exercise in wearily fighting to stay awake. It is an exercise in hopeful expectation, which always has to do with the future.
Because it is what prompts us to look to the future, hope is our most human characteristic. Being human is to experience ourselves "within the tension between the past and the future as [we] pass through the present" (Ratzinger "On Hope," Communio, Summer 2008, 302). "To be without hope, to have nothing to live for, is to surrender to death in despair" (Mark Searle The Spirit of Advent). The opposite of hope is fear. To be fearful is to take a negative stance towards the future, which can never be known with certainty. Fear results from the absence of love, from the experience of life as "No," as nothing but a series of disappointments. At the root of all our fears "is the fear of losing love altogether, fear of an existence in which the little daily disturbances fill everything, without anything large and reassuring" to aid us in keeping it all in perspective (Ratzinger 303).
Each of us can verify through our experience that no matter what we may accomplish, no matter what we acquire, we are still dissatisfied; the largeness of our hope is bigger than ourselves, our desire is bigger than the world. We need something, or someone, that goes beyond that which we can attain or obtain on our own. This is an existential fact, not a theological conclusion. Our acknowledgement of this fact of human existence prompts a question: Are we just absurd beings, always needing more than we have, or is there something, or someone, who can satisfy our longing?
The church proclaims through the ages that Jesus Christ is the answer to our longing, the fulfillment of our desire, as the hymn, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, beautifully indicates. Paul, who met the answer to his longing on the road to Damascus, writes to the Corinthian Church about "the grace of God bestowed on [them] in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor 1:4). It is in Christ that, like the Corinthians, we are "enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge" (1 Cor 1:5). Hence, we "are not lacking in any spiritual gift as [we] wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1:7).
For Christians joyfully watching and waiting is a spiritual gift manifested by our practice of the presence of God. This practice has to begin with the knowledge that we are loved, that our existence is a "Yes" on the part of God. Hence, our answer to Hamlet’s timeless query, then, is that it is always better to be than not to be! So, we work, we learn, we live in the awareness of the Lord’s presence, which is to live in the awareness of God’s love and the promise of Christ’s return, "[w]hen everything is subjected to him… so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15:28). The practice of the presence of God teaches us to grow in hope so that we can cast off our fear of the loneliness that we embrace every time we reject God’s company through sin so that we can begin to discern and to welcome his loving presence freely.
Advent in our time presents us with a huge challenge in this regard. In these days immediately following our observance of Thanksgiving, we see lights, hear non-stop Christmas music, we observe and sometimes participate in frantic shopping, worrying about whether our desires and those near and dear to us are bigger than our wallets. How can we find a center in the midst of all these distractions? Well my friends, it requires an intentional effort on our part. Growth in hope, that is, spiritual growth, does not happen by responding to the occasional inspiration or good feeling, but by daily practice, known as discipline. Disciplines are what disciples practice in imitation of their master. Prayer is the cornerstone of all the other disciplines. Eileen Campbell-Reed recently observed that "[t]rying to have Advent without prayer is a little like trying to give birth while holding your breath" it can be done, but is not recommended. There is no better resolution we can make at the beginning of this new year of grace than making time, or making more time, each day to pray.
While it starts and ends with prayer, there is something important that has to happen in between, namely love of neighbor. Practice of the presence of God is what enables us to make Christ present to others, by reaching out to them in love and meeting their need. This year, with the massive economic downturn, resulting in a great deal of financial distress for many people, we are presented with an opportunity to make Christ present to others. In his song, Distressing Disguise, Michael Card beautifully links the practice of the presence of God with joyfully waiting for the Lord’s return:
'Every time a faithful servant serves A brother that's in need/What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed/As they look to one another in an instant it is clear Only Jesus is visible for they've both disappeared."Reaching out beyond ourselves, especially in these distressing times, saying "Yes" in love to others, is the only way that God, as Isaiah prays, "might meet us doing right," being "mindful of [him] in our ways" (Is 64:3). It only through our free response in love to the needs of others, which is the fruit of our practice of God’s presence in the now of our lives, that we will be kept "irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ," the day for which we not only wait, but joyfully seek to hasten "for the sake of [his] servants" (1 Cor 13:8; Is 63:17).