Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin
Saturday of the First Week of Advent
Although Advent is the official season of waiting to celebrate Christ’s birth, the unofficial waiting often begins much earlier. When do you normally see the first Christmas decorations go up or the first display in a store? How many of you know somebody who started his or her Christmas shopping several months ago? Maybe even eleven months ago? Advent formalizes the waiting period, but it can’t begin to encapsulate the entire time that people actually take to prepare in ways both big and small.
Considering how much time we spend waiting for Christmas, it strikes me as odd that so few images show a visibly pregnant Mary waiting to give birth as the first Christmas draws closer. On March 25, the Catholic Church celebrates the conception of Jesus within her (although we don’t generally call it that) with the Feast of the Annunciation. Nine months later we have December 25. Aside from the biblical accounts of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and an inconvenient trip to Bethlehem, it seems like we don’t want to spend much time imagining what took place in Mary’s world or in her body during those nine months.
Parents, and especially mothers, know far better than I ever will how much energy, effort, and worry go into preparing for a birth. Adoptive and foster parents have a very different and potentially much longer process of preparing to welcome their new children than biological parents do. Purposeful waiting involves work, not just passivity. Welcoming new life requires effort.
These days however, much of our waiting may feel passive. For instance, we’re all waiting for this pandemic to end, and I don’t think I personally know any research scientist who is actively involved in ending it. The best that most of us can do is to respond prudently to a difficult situation. We have all been called upon to adapt our habits, behaviors, customs, and social structures in order to mitigate the spread of contagion and give ourselves the best chance of waiting it out. No matter how much we deliberately plan deliberately within our own particular spheres of relative control, we see more than ever how much rides on factors beyond our influence. Yet, even without our individual ability to compel it, the virus will eventually end, just as the baby is eventually born.
It’s been about nine months since the first parts of the USA began locking down to contain the virus. About nine months of heightened precautions and mounting infections. A lot can happen in nine months. Circulatory, pulmonary, and digestive systems can all develop, limbs and sensory organs can form. A bundle of cells containing a unique genetic code can transform from a state in which its status as a lifeform is hotly debated into an undeniably human infant.
What has been growing within you these past nine months that have been so impossibly pregnant with ambiguity? After traversing my own darkness and anxieties, I find myself probably healthier (physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually) than I had been beforehand. I’m more focused and am happier with how I spend my time. I may be more at home with myself than ever. The desolation of our COVID desert has revealed itself to be an unlikely womb that has nurtured my ability to address greater challenges with greater equanimity.
Of course, I’ve been lucky. Many people have suffered greatly and cannot see any gift that this time has brought. No matter how much I’ve benefited from this time in hindsight, I naturally would never have wished for it. It’s been too painful, and the pain continues. Yet, here we are. And if one’s suffering has brought nothing more than an increased capacity to suffer, is that not something remarkable in itself?
Of course, I have not somehow arrived at the height of who I am meant to be. By means of analogy, the central nervous system is one human feature that has not fully developed, even after nine months in utero… it needs about twenty more years to fully form. Nonetheless, it comes a remarkably long way during that time. And I feel that I have somehow come a bit of a long way during these nine months as well.
Still, may it be over soon. But may we also come to hold that which we have gained through our experience along with that which we have lost.
Incidentally, any reader looking for a simple addition to your Advent practice may be interested in checking out the Marist Advent reflection booklet, Advent with Our Good Mother, written by an assortment of Lay Marists and Marist Brothers. It is a wonderful way of journeying through the season with Mary toward Jesus. Many thanks to Matt Fallon for the service he has done us all in putting it together!
Although this is my last post of 2020, it’s too soon to be in a New Year’s mood. Nonetheless, this week’s “ear candy” captures the reality of growth and other blessings that come even through (or only through?) pain. In the “brain food”, Pope Francis writes about what he considers the key to emerging from this crisis more human than when we entered it. Namely, we must learn to better engage one another’s suffering.
Ear Candy: “Thank You for It All” by Marvin Sapp
Brain Food: “Pope Francis: A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts” by Pope Francis
Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!