Undue significance a starving man attaches
Far off; he sighs, and therefore hopeless,
And therefore good.
Partaken, it relieves indeed, but proves us
That spices fly
In the receipt. It was the distance
These words of Emily Dickinson remind us that the longing for someone or something is often an experience even richer than the person or object of that longing. The college-age love affair forced to endure the insufferable distance of educational geography. The retired man or woman lost in a fog of non-identity yearn for earlier times when it was more clear who they were and why they were here.
My mom used to tell me that as kids we were “full of piss and vinegar” around Christmas time. Although the exact nature of this chemical mixture is unknown to me, I think I get her point. Those of us fortunate enough to have access to Christmas morning consumer delights may recall the unbearable pangs of waiting for it when that certain item we’ve been harping about might just be waiting to greet us. We go through the motions of “being good boys and girls” so as to maximize our chances for a successful haul under the tree. And, frankly, many of us, well into adulthood, remain as babes – our littlest ones, whose needs, immediate and pressing, are always loudly trumpeted if unmet.
Advent is the liturgical equivalent of communal yearning. It is a time when, together, we enter into the much deeper waiting experienced by our forebears in faith for the fulfillment of a promise; a promise made to those long dead and far removed from our present reality.
There really is no better time than Advent to talk about the mystery of waiting. If we are willing, our connection with the Divine throbs most insistently at such times. Waiting can be nothing more than a feat of drudgery, accompanying oneself on the frustrating journey of unsatisfied desire. Or, it can be the mist-heavy pond upon which float, blindly but lightly, our lilies of longing. One leads to fear, hatred, anger, destruction. The other to patience, quiet devotion to duty and persons, to the delicate wonders of the unremarkable that grace our days.
Advent acts as a centuries long foreplay to the main event through which sweet relief is found. In that long foreplay we learn to live, move and have our being while often blind-folded or lost altogether. In it we learn to trust our silent dance partner whose subtleties on the dance floor leave us breathless but a little baffled at times. Advent forces a kind of slowness to things. As it becomes clear that immediate satisfaction is nowhere on the horizon, we learn the joys of nuanced living; of faith in a person rather than facts and plans and possible outcomes. We learn journey more than destination.
With the advent of Jesus we learn that God remains annoyingly carefree in his use of timelines. They belong to God alone. However, in that same advent we learn just how good it can be to wait with the intentionality of longing – spiritual foreplay – than pacing the floors of our constantly incomplete lives. For, to miss even the tiniest detail of all the manger meant is to miss everything else as well.