Thanksgiving has come and gone; the great parade with its floats, balloons and banners has marched by; the festive dinner digested, and the memories of another holiday season have only just begun. Turkey Day has now segued into another realm, a world which our secular society doesn’t quite appreciate or understand.
For those of us who are people of faith, this other “realm” is not just another season in the liturgical calendar, but an important one of our year: the season of Advent.
This is an unusual time, in that it is a season of waiting. But it is also a season of wanting; not in the usual sense of expecting wonderfully-wrapped presents and gifts, but of something more meaningful: meaning itself in the person of the God-Man wrapped in bundling clothes lying in a manger, under the dome of a starry night sky, appearing amongst us in the most unobtrusive way possible, in a way that the well-connected, the powerful and the well positioned could never ever fathom.
Advent is a season of human longing.
Advent is also a season of divine longing.
Advent is the season when the two become one, where the human and divine eventually meet in an encounter that was meant from the very beginning of creation; it is an encounter that had been broken by the death that is sin.
All the wonderful decorations, all the exquisite Christmas trees and colorfully wrapped packages are just the outward expressions of the inner longing that all human beings have in common: the need for connection, the need for meaning and the need to be needed, wanted and loved.
When it comes right down to it that is the meaning of this season that is Advent. Both God and man want the same thing: to be needed, wanted and loved.
All this came to mind as a result of an adolescent experience. Back in the days when I was a student in St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in the Bronx, our chaplain, the Rev. Alfred E. Smith, O.S.A. (grandson and spitting-image of his grandfather-governor namesake), invited the students (individually) to his small corner office to talk about our views on faith and the church and what we liked and didn’t like about it. These sessions only lasted a few minutes (and longer for those who had a lot of questions!); it was just a friendly talk between chaplain and student—or so it seemed at the time. At the conclusion of the talk, Father Smith gave each of us a little gift: it was a devotional booklet about God with the title, “Confidence in God.”
The book that Father Smith gave each of us was a simple one, not even 100 pages, with a plain brown cover with the title enclosed in a circle with a cross aside it. It was small enough to be held in the palm of your hand and it was just the right size to fit inside a jacket pocket or in an enclosure of a schoolbag. It was written by the Rev. Daniel Considine, S.J., an English Jesuit who had died in 1928. Subtitled, “Words of Encouragement taken from the Notes, Instructions and Letters of Rev. Daniel Considine, S.J., Arranged by Rev. F. C. Devas, S.J.,” it was first published by the Catholic Truth Society in London. At first glance, it seemed to be just another one of those “devotionals” that a generation of another time was accustomed to, of the kind that was known as “Fr. Faber garden-variety Catholicism” that was so popular in a long-ago Victorian era.
But this was different, as it presented God in an entirely new perspective, not in the “hellfire and brimstone” way that was the widely utilized method of catechizing once upon a time. (Even in my 1960s childhood, I distinctly remember one Sunday sermon in Tolentine’s lower church when the Augustinian priest, attired in his black robe and belt, leaning forward onto the pulpit, practically yelling out his sermon, to my five-or-six-year-old consternation and befuddlement. After about five minutes of this, I was ready to cover my tender ears. I could take it no longer: I tugged at my mother’s sleeve and said, “Mommy, why is the priest yelling? Are we all deaf?” It was all my dear mother could do to keep from bursting out in raucous laughter in a crowded lower church, modeled after the Roman catacombs.) What Father Considine proposed in his little book was different.
Father Considine’s thesis was mind-boggling: God is shy.
When you’re young and in school, you hear of many theories and beliefs about the Creator of All, Emmanuel, the Son of God, our Savior, the Ruler of the Universe. And if you were Irish—like myself—the God you were culturally accustomed to was someone far, far away, sitting in unbelievable majesty on a regal throne, ready to pronounce judgment upon us at any moment. (It must be noted for the historical record that it was the Jesuits who were at the forefront in combatting this warped view of religion. And, it is one that has mostly gone—thankfully—though it hasn’t entirely disappeared. In time, though—fortunately—we learned a more nuanced view of the Godhead.)
A new truth was revealed: God loves us so much, he became one of us to be with us and live our lives with us. God is in his heaven (as the poet might have said) but he decided to make it here on earth, with us. No glorious entrance, no appearance as a mighty soldier-emperor in a chariot, whipping white horses in a parade of power to assume royal and princely prerogatives amongst toadying acolytes: no. God came among us as a baby to be held and loved and cared for, just as he had always done for his creation. The creator had done the unthinkable: he turned the tables and upended human expectations to such an extent that even two millennia later, we still cannot adequately comprehend the simple majesty of this act.
When I first read that phrase—God is shy—I took it to mean: God is lonely. As Father Considine wrote:
…he comes to the lonely heart which other loves do not fill. This is why bereaved hearts, outraged hearts, hearts misunderstood, hearts which have broken with kith and kin and native place, are the hearts of His predilection. Human sympathy is a dear bargain. God waits outside till our company has gone.
As I would be taught later in religious studies classes, God chose to reveal himself in this way, in the most unobtrusive way possible. That is mind-boggling, when you come to think of it. But then, so is it when we receive the Eucharist: God comes to be placed in our hands so that he can reside in the tabernacle of our hearts, to light us from the inside out. God comes, simply, quietly. He does not force himself on us, but he waits upon us, when we are ready for him.
In Advent, two truths are revealed: God is lonely, and so are we. We both want to be needed, wanted, and loved. And so we—God and man—both wait—and want. Advent is simple, quiet and beautiful, because it is the season that sets up the encounter that will become the feast that is Christmas, where we become wanted, needed and loved.