I can’t wait!” Children say it all the time. They can’t wait for their birthday, for dessert, for it to snow, and then for the snow to melt .… But we adults say it too: I can’t wait to get this cast off; to get the test results; for the weekend to come.

Waiting is hard, and it’s not the great American pastime. We spend time, we lose time. We waste time. And when we suddenly have time, we don’t know what to do with it.

Advent comes and gently invites us Christians into a period of waiting. It actually teaches us the art of waiting — and the joy of preparation and anticipation. Advent invites us to be spiritually pregnant with all the hopes for which we long.

In Advent we learn that everything of value needs time to come to fullness. We learn to take time. And in taking time, we anticipate the reward and relish with joy the fruits of our waiting. Waiting helps us enjoy what finally arrives and that which we otherwise might take for granted.

The cake in the oven needs time to be fully baked. Then it will taste good. The poem, after a period of mulling, incubation and corrections, finally emerges on the paper in full bloom. Over time, the grapes are transformed into fine wine.

A big chunk of one’s spiritual life is learning to have confidence in the darkness of winter, in times when things look bleak, to know that there is something out of our sight that is coming into being. Advent is one time in the year when the church says, “Waiting may be difficult, but we have to wait, so let’s wait together.”

And so, in the darkest time of the year, we wait with longing for the slow return of light.

As the culture rushes Christmas, the Christian is invited to be countercultural. The outer world is whipping itself into a buying frenzy, decoration overload, and a season of budget strain, parties and anxiety in what society now calls the “holiday season” (that began, somehow, in October).

Don’t be cheated

It’s hard work swimming against that cultural tide. But if we don’t, we are cheated of a season we need: Advent. And without patience, we lose Christmas as well.

We are accompanied through the dark days of Advent by the gospel reminders of Christ’s coming in time and coming again at the end of time.

Like the family counting the trimesters of a baby on the way, we count the days with the Advent calendar. We weave the fragrant branches of evergreen onto a hoop, and it’s more than just a decoration. It’s an archetype:

When the far north ancients watched the waning of days, they took in their harvest, brought their animals to shelter and then removed the wheels from their carts. Out in the snowy forest, one tree seemed to remain green, alive and hopeful. They collected and wove those branches around their wheels and fashioned torches to these wreaths. In their great halls, they hung the wheels from the rafters and, lighting one torch at a time, they danced and sang and told their stories.

They lent each other courage in the darkness as they wooed back the sun, the source of light and life. And it worked! What a relief. Slowly the sun returned and the light grew.

Our Advent wreaths are a powerful symbol. They are our inner wheels removed. This means we stop time as we know it and we take time to spend it in anticipation and preparation.

If we were required to make our Advent wreaths out of just one tire from our cars, life would be vastly altered throughout the culture. We would stop.

Wheeling and dealing would come to a halt. We would be “snowed in” in the darkness to prepare heart and hearth for the coming of the Son and source of light and life. We might take the time to make cakes and jams, to knit mittens, make quilts or carve dolls, work with wood, or bake and store up the traditional cookies and breads to be ready for the coming season.

The Creator God inspires the creativity in our gift-giving. The gifts we give remind us of “the gift”: the Christ child.

The “stuff” of our gift preparations is materia — material that is holy because God took on a material being to live among us, also taking on our humanity through the body of a human woman, Mary. In the Incarnation, Spirit and matter marry to heal all our dualities. In wholeness, the marriage brings us the God/man.

Without understanding that marriage, in which God thought humankind good enough to join it, we rush only to one side: materia devoid of the Spirit.

That is materialism.

Then it becomes that driving hunger where we keep devouring stuff, things and material — and can’t be sated. We uncork the bottles looking for that spirit and come away empty. In a feeding frenzy that has us pawing through the sales tables and earmarking the catalogs, we often buy things for others with a sense of duty and despair.

And because they didn’t find Christ in their Christmas gifts, stores are mayhem again on Dec. 26, when presents are returned in disappointment because Christ came in the wrong size or color.

Tunes & traditions light the way

But anticipating, preparing, creating, making — all can be a prayer that leads us through the darkness into the new light.

There are dozens of hymns and Advent carols that speak to our longing, our fears, our cheer in these waiting days:

People, look east. The time is near of the crowing of the year. Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table. People look east, and sing today — Love, the Guest, is on the way (“People, Look East,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 248).

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee (“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” ELW, 254).

Rejoice, then, you sad-hearted, who sit in deepest gloom, who mourn your joys departed and tremble at your doom. All hail the Lord’s appearing! O glorious Sun, now come, send forth your beams so cheering and guide us safely home (“O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” ELW, 241).

Advent hymns such as these keep us focused. These and other traditions — in the church and in our homes — are stepping-stones that carry us through the season. They allow us to celebrate the darkness, lending us courage and joy in our longing.

Advent isn’t dour. Each festivity points from itself to the mystery ahead.

Congregational life should be the “first responder” to our basic human need for time out, time taken, time returned to us loaded with grace and joy and appreciation of simple things glorified.

Parishes can bring members through this collective celebration of darkness-before-dawn, to the dawning of Emmanuel, God-with-us, to a great manifestation in the feast of Epiphany.

Save children’s pageants, choir concerts and staff parties for the 12 days of Christmas. Instead, consider how you might celebrate, or help families celebrate, St. Nicholas Day or St. Lucia, for instance. Our country is a fine ethnic salad full of customs that could add richness to our December.

The ‘real’ St. Nick

Eastern and Northern Europeans celebrate St. Nicholas of Myra on Dec. 6.

He is the true Santa Claus whose bishop’s miter has been replaced with a clown’s cap and his shining vestments with a snowsuit. Apparently, a chubby elf sells better than a dignified bishop/father figure. Angels have been replaced with more elves, and since we can’t touch heaven, we have housed him at the North Pole. He is used as both a threat and a promise to get children to behave.

Not so Nicholas. His stories and legends lead us right into understanding that God needs him to distribute justice and goods, and Nicholas needs us to do the same.

We don’t outgrow Nicholas, as we might outgrow Santa Claus. Instead, we grow into him. We learn that we, too, must leave our egos behind in the dark and become givers of gifts, responsible for distributing justice and being healers in a broken world. God needs humankind to do the work of salvation.

Children should hear those Nicholas stories. They can wake to a shoe filled with a sample of the Christmas cookies-to-come, an orange and some nuts. They can, in turn, be a Nicholas to someone in the neighborhood or at school who could use a treat, given anonymously and devoid of an ego. That’s a thrill in its own right.

The Latino culture celebrates Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on Dec. 12. Radiant as the sun, standing on the glowing moon, the duality of night and day is brought together in her earthy, human body. This calls for processions with banners and candles.

On Dec. 13, Scandinavians share St. Lucia (light) customs: a “Lucy” is chosen and wears a crown of candles on her head, followed by a bevy of star children. They serve traditional rolls, shining yellow with egg yolk and saffron and fragrant with cardamom. They wake up a household or a whole parish after eucharist with their breakfast for a dark morning.

On the last days of Advent, Latinos celebrate Las Posadas — seeking a home for Mary and Joseph. The crèche figures process from household to household, hoping to be invited in and honored as they make their way to the stable.

How many ways do we refuse shelter to the poor? How do we discover Christ in the lowliest? Is our understanding of this — a moment of goodwill — a public charity to assuage our consciences of overconsumption?

Advent leads us to the tree

Can we see all of these Advent opportunities as a lesson in not just waiting for Christ, but becoming the Christ-bearer through this season and on to the mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection?

If we prepare and hear the Gospels for the four weeks of Advent, certainly our Christmastime is not a single day. The “12 days of Christmas” aren’t before Christmas, but they are the Christmas season that now, fully prepared and ready, we celebrate, clear that Jesus Christ is born in our own flesh and blood.

What a burst of joy when we gather around the tree, which is fresh, green and fragrant (which it can’t be, if we set it up at Thanksgiving).

Out of the darkness, and in the glow of only four candles from our Advent wreath, we are finally greeted by the blaze of lights on this tree of life.

On Christmas Eve the waiting really does lead us into promise. Here this tree of life and promise is the tree of knowledge, the tree of our fall, the “happy fault” that brings us onward through Christ’s tree of the cross, the tree of our salvation.

We sing our first carols, the table dances with our favorite traditional breads and foods. The hearth breathes warmth and lights. If you have even an ounce of creative theater in you, you’ll know how to bring this moment to life.

Bring on the gatherings and visits, with gift exchanges and feasting, with outings and carol singing, with the full-on cheer that Christ is indeed among us.

Behold, these are the tidings of great joy that we have longed for. This is a taste of heaven. The darkness is behind us.

Gertrud Mueller Nelson

Mueller Nelson, a freelance writer, illustrator and speaker, lives in San Diego. She is the author of several books, including To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Paulist Press, 1986).

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