Bottom line: Today we begin the season of Advent, a time which emphasizes patient waiting. Patient waiting is essential to our relationship to the Lord and to one another.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent and our theme is patient waiting. You see the idea of patient waiting in each of the Scripture readings, but I was particularly struck by the words the psalmist addresses to the Lord, "For you I wait all the day long." The image you get is a man standing in the temple - not too far away from the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies - waiting for the Lord to speak to him or to inspire him . He will wait all day if necessary and, if nothing happens, he will still consider it time well spent.
That kind of patience is not easy, but it is essential to our relationship with the Lord - and, for that matter, with each other. Patient waiting is sometimes the greatest service a person can perform. Soldiers know that. One of the slogans in the military is "hurry up and wait." A soldier has to be vigilant. It might involve some boredom, but is necessary to defend one's country.
I had the opportunity to talk with a doctor who worked in the emergency room of a hospital. I asked her if her work was as exciting as the ER television program. She said that it was at times, but then added "we also have to do a lot of waiting, just standing by." I don't know about you, but I am glad that she and other people are willing to stand by. I am grateful for their patience.
The Lord tells us today that we must stand by and patiently wait for him. He warns against the impatience which would lead us to escapist behavior - like over drinking. He also warns against getting so caught up in the immediate concerns of this life that we fall into anxiety, which is a kind of free-floating fear. The key to avoiding both anxiety and escapism is vigilance, also known as patience.
An early Christian writer named Tertullian considered that patience was the most basic Christian virtue. He wrote a beautiful essay which begins by focusing on the patience of God and of Jesus. Then he describes how our first parents fell away from God because of their impatience. After analysing the damage caused by impatience, Tertullian uses examples of biblical saints to inspire his readers to practice the virtue. It is a powerful essay, well worth reading, but it contains a sad irony. Tertullian wrote wonderfully about patience, but he himself had a terrible time practicing it. Toward the end of his life, he grew impatient with the human weakness of the Church and he joined a charismatic sect which taught that the Second Coming was right around the corner. Tertullian's own impatience undid him.
Now, you and I may not be tempted to leave the Catholic Church, but we probably need to ask for patience in our everyday lives. Patience, in many ways, is the most fundamental Christian virtue. Without patience we cannot properly love other people. Love requires that we listen patiently to that other person - and balance our own desires against the good of the other.
From time to time I meet people who have heroic patience. You see it in couples who have been married for many years. On the day of their wedding, they pledged themselves for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Their marriage brought many blessings, but it also involved the cross - a call to patient love. This of course does not mean acquiescing to an abusive situation*, but it does often involve caring for a person suffering a physical or emotional illness. The patience required seems to bring its own reward: a profound peace, even a joy, which those outside cannot imagine.
How are you doing with patience? I admit I'm far from possessing the virtue. But I do know that patience often brings the greatest rewards. So many people ruin their lives - and other people's - by grasping at some satisfaction before its time. The truth is that the Lord will satisfy all our legitimate desires, if we only have patience.
He will even fulfill desires which at present are not legitimate. Steve Chandler (author of motivational books such as The 17 Lies That Are Holding You Back) tells how in his earlier life he used alcohol and drugs to achieve certain states of mind. Of course, he wound up bitterly disappointed. But then he began to realize he could reprogram his thinking and his life - and in doing so he discovered a sense of well-being, peacefulness and even ecstacy - which drugs could never give him. By practicing patience, Steve Chandler achieved something greater than he attained by escapism. Giving in to seemingly all-powerful obsessions only brought misery. Patience, on the other hand, made modest promises, but delivered so much more.
If you have read self-help or motivational books, you will notice that they frequently have an underlying theme. Often you can take their advice and express it in a single word: Patience. Writers like Steve Chandler, Eckhart Tolle (Power of the Now) and Stephen Covey (Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People) help people avoid the illusion of instant gratification and see their lives in light of bigger goals. They show ways in which a person can stop worrying so much about the future and live in the present. They help people take steps to overcome weariness, paralysis and fear. Accomplishing those goals involves forgoing things which are immediately attractive in order to attain something substantial and long lasting. In a word, it requires patience.
Motivation writers often have good insight into how people can find success in their business, their families and their relationships. That is beautiful - and we should take advantage of what they can teach us. Still, for us there is an even deeper motivation: the incredible life which Jesus calls us to. He gives us the ultimate motive for patience: "Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength...to stand before the Son of Man."
To sum up: Today we begin the season of Advent, a time which emphasizes patient waiting. It enables us to overcome overcome escapist, obsessive behavior. Patience also means living in the present. By patience we can break free from weariness and paralysis. Now is the time to ask the Lord for the virtue of patience. Such patience is essential to our relationship to the Lord and to one another. So: "Be vigilant...and pray."
*Paralysis is not patience. Sometimes just the opposite: rising from paralysis can require the patience of making a plan and taking one small step after another - and not giving up when meeting a roadblock.
From Archives (Homily for First Sunday of Advent, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Update on my sister, Melanie's health
Nice snowstorm on Camano Island, WA, November 27, 2006:
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Pictures from Peru
(Aaron Howard with girls at Puno orphanage, Daughters of Charity in background)
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Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
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