Nikos Kazantzakis once commented: “People are impatient, but God’s not in a hurry!” That’s a good line to reflect upon as we enter into Advent. Looking at the religious history that leads up to the birth of Christ, we cannot help but be struck by the fact that God seemingly takes his time. The Old Testament is a history of longing and yearning: deep longing for running streams, hearts aching for consummation, people struggling for freedom. Yet, in the Old Testament, there is little fulfilment, there are few times where God intervenes directly. Mostly, it is a book about desire and frustration. And it is a long book.
Time passes, centuries pass, people grow old and pass on, and desires remain unfulfilled, frustration intensifies. Eventually, the cry arises: “Come, Lord, come! Save us! How much longer must we wait? When, Lord, when? Why not now?” The people grow ever more impatient, but God will not be hurried. Why not? Looking at that centuries-long first Advent, we might validly ask: Why didn’t God hurry? Why did he wait so long? Why all those centuries of longing and yearning, of frustration and tears? Does God have a cruel thirst for suffering? Can he afford to be so patient, so plodding in his plans, when we are suffering so much?
The Old Testament itself already answers these questions partly with its idea: “Every tear brings the messiah closer!” What is affirmed here is that there is an intrinsic connection between aching, pain and frustration, and the possibility of a messiah being born. Messiahs are born only after a long period of yearning. We see this already in human births. The process of gestation cannot be hurried. As well, in childbirth, there is an intrinsic connection between the pain the mother experiences and the possibility of new life.
This is also true of Christ’s birth. Advent, that centuries-long gestation period, could not be rushed. Tears, pain and countless prayers were needed to create the conditions for the pregnancy. They are still connected with the possibility of Christ appearing within life. God made the people wait for a messiah, not because he has a cruel thirst for suffering, but because the dynamics of love, life and birth demand Advent. They are realities that must be gestated. They, like messiahs, can only be born when people are ready for them – namely, when, through suffering and yearning and prayer, a space is created, a womb is formed. Further metaphors can be useful in understanding this:
John of the Cross, in trying to shed light on the process of coming to love, uses the image of a log coming to flame in a fireplace. When a green log is placed in a fire, it does not start to burn immediately. It needs first to be dried out. Thus, for a long time, it lies in the fire and sizzles, its greenness and dampness slowly drying out. Only when it reaches kindling temperature does it ignite and burst into flame. The log catches fire after an Advent. So, too, our entry into love, community, God’s kingdom. We become part of the fire, ignite into love only when we, damp logs that we are, are sufficiently dried out. We ignite in love only when we have sizzled sufficiently. We sizzle through desire and through aching. This is the meaning of Advent.
Teilhard de Chardin called it the “raising of our psychic temperatures.” In chemistry, as we know, it is possible to place two elements in the same test tube and not get fusion. Sometimes it is only after they are heated to a higher temperature that certain elements will unite. People are no different. Often it is only when psychic temperatures are raised sufficiently that there is fusion, reconciliation, respect, love, patience, chastity, space. Prior to that, there is separateness, egoism, narcissism, selfishness. We raise our psychic temperatures through desire, through prayer, through learning to wait for God.
Advent is about all this. In Advent, we learn that the pains of inconsummation, the daily frustration of incompleteness, the aching for a wholeness we can never attain, are pains that can be incredible means of purification. Every tear brings the messiah closer. Every frustration can make us more ready to love, to forgive. Every longing can lead us to deeper prayer. Every time we groan in our incompleteness, we are closer to helping gestate a womb within which the messiah can appear. It is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of the spirit is brought forth. Preparing for Christmas is not just a matter of getting the shopping done, the cards out, the tree up, the lights strung and the gifts wrapped. This is the season to yearn, to sizzle in inconsummation, to pray a little more, to be in touch with our deeper longings, to raise our psychic temperatures. It is the season to try to stretch our hearts and minds so as to create the space, the womb, within which a messiah can be born.
Later is the season to be jolly!