Today’s Mass – and, indeed, the entirety of Advent – seem to throw at us two contradictory messages. The Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent always exhorts us to vigilance: Stay awake (Mt 24:42). . . .Be watchful, be alert. . . .Watch! (Mk 13: 33,37). . . .Be vigilant at all times (Lk 21:34). Similarly, the Prefaces for Advent describe us as those who watch for that day and are watchful in prayer. But then the collect for today’s Mass prays, not for the capacity to wait and watch, but for the resolve to run forth to meet Christ. Other prayers in Advent beg for a similar grace: to hasten. . .press forward. . .go out. . .and set out in haste.
So do we watch or hasten? Wait or run forth? Of course, both responses to the Lord are necessary for the Christian life. Both are necessary for hope, the virtue characteristic of Advent. And these two responses, in fact, depend on one another.
First, vigilance – which means to wait and watch. The virtue of hope gives us the capacity to wait for the Lord. Indeed, we need this virtue precisely because Christ has not yet returned. We wait for Him to answer our prayers, to complete His work within us, and ultimately to come again. And we don’t know when that will be. This waiting emphasizes that it all depends on His initiative. He is the Lord of history. He alone determines the time of His coming. He came once in the fullness of time and now we await Him to return at an hour we do not expect.
The exhortation to vigilance and the virtue of hope are proportioned to one of our deepest wounds: impatience. We must abide by His schedule, not ours. God has given us time as the opportunity to grow in trust as we await His coming. Yet it feels like a burden to us. We reject His gift of time by refusing to wait and by taking things into our own hands. Unable to wait, Abram and Sarai connived to produce descendants by the slave girl Hagar. Israel’s impatience at the foot of Mount Sinai prompted Aaron to craft for them the golden calf and thus lead them into apostasy. Saul refused to wait for Samuel any longer and so lost the kingship. And so on.
We get into a lot of mischief when we cannot wait and watch for the Lord, when we expect Him to conform to our schedule. We then assume control and seek to accomplish here and now what the Lord promised to do on that Day. We chase after secular, worldly messiahs to satisfy our longings. Without vigilance, we slowly but surely make peace with the world, settle down, and slouch into our own vices. With good reason the Church exhorts us to wait and watch.
But waiting does not mean standing still, and watching does not make the Christian life a spectator sport. Hope strains ahead in confidence to attain what has been promised. So the Advent liturgy also exhorts us to hasten. Indeed, there is a sense of urgency and movement throughout the season’s prayers.
Now, if waiting emphasizes the Lord’s coming to us, hastening emphasizes our going to Him – and, more broadly, our pilgrimage to heaven. Hope rests on the truth that we are not to remain in this world but to make our pilgrim way through it. Today’s post-communion prayer beautifully describes us as those who walk amid passing things. That this prayer is offered in five other Masses during Advent’s four weeks indicates the importance of knowing the world as passing and ourselves as pilgrims.
Our hastening to meet Him thus requires us to treat this world as something of a stranger. We should always feel some discomfort here – not because the world is evil but because heaven has become our inheritance, our homeland. In fact, we should experience in this world a holy homelessness, a blessed uprootedness. Since He pitched His tent among us we have no lasting city. His dwelling among us has made us homeless.
The repeated calls to hasten and run forth address another deep wound in man: sloth. The Israelites departed Egypt in haste, intent on the Promised Land. But they grew tired of the journey and bored with the “wretched food” God miraculously provided. They began to look over their shoulders, back to fleshpots of Egypt. David was swift and zealous for Israel – at first. He later slowed down and, lingering at home while his army did battle, fell progressively into sloth, lust, adultery, and murder.
We likewise grow bored with our pilgrimage. Like any journey it consists, not of constant excitement, but of simple perseverance – placing one step in front of another. We think it dull, but we are the ones who have been dulled. So we cut short the journey and seek to set down roots. Rather than striving for eternal dwellings we try to domesticate God. This annual plea for the resolve to run forth speaks precisely of what we need.
Of course, this waiting and hastening depend on one another. Each one holds the other in its proper place. Without the capacity to wait, we take things into our own hands and hasten in all the wrong directions. Without a sense of pilgrimage, our waiting becomes complacency and comfort with the world.
May this Advent increase within us both vigilance for His coming and a hastening to greet Him.