Advent and the many faces of anticipation Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 -- 12:00 AM

This article is the first of two parts from Bishop Robert Barron.

Advent is the liturgical season of vigilance or, to put it more mundanely, of waiting. During the four weeks prior to Christmas, we light the candles of our Advent wreaths and put ourselves in the spiritual space of the Israelite people who, through many long centuries, waited for the coming of the Messiah ("How long, O Lord?").

In the wonderful avant-garde German movie Run Lola Run, a young woman finds herself in a terrible bind: She needs to gather an enormous amount of money in a ridiculously short period of time.

Throughout the movie she runs and runs, desperately trying through her own frantic efforts to make things right, but nothing works. Finally, at the moment when she finds herself at the absolute limit of her powers, she slows to a trot, looks up to heaven and says, "Ich warte, ich warte" (I'm waiting, I'm waiting).

Vigilance and expectation

Though she does not explicitly address God and though there has been no hint throughout the movie that Lola is the least bit religious, this is undoubtedly a prayer. And in the immediate wake of her edgy request a rather improbable solution to her problem presents itself.

Lola's prayer has always reminded me of Simone Weil, that wonderful and mysterious 20th-century French mystic whose entire spirituality is predicated upon the power of waiting, or -- in her language -- of expectation.

In prayer, Weil taught, we open our souls, expecting God to act even when the content of that expectation remains unclear. In their curious vigilance and hoping against hope, both Lola and Simone are beautiful Advent figures.

Hold our horses

Their attitude is, of course, deeply rooted in biblical revelation. From beginning to end of Scripture, we discover stories of people who are compelled to wait.

The patriarch Abraham received the promise that he would become, despite his old age, the father of a son and through that son, the father of descendants more numerous than the stars in the night sky. The fulfillment of that promise was a long time in coming.

Through many years, as he and his wife grew older and older, as the likelihood of their parenthood became increasingly remote, Abraham waited.

Did he doubt? Did he wonder whether he had misconstrued the divine promise? Did he waver in his faith? Did he endure the taunts of his enemies and the pitying glances of his friends? Probably. But he waited, and in time the promise came true.

Abraham's great-grandson Joseph, the wearer of the multi-colored coat, saw in a dream that he would be a powerful man and that his brothers would one day bow down to him in homage.

But the realization of that dream came only after a long and terrible wait. He was sold into slavery by the same brothers, falsely accused of sexual misconduct, humiliated, and finally sent to prison for seven years.

Imagine what it must have been like to endure years in an ancient prison -- the discomfort, the total lack of privacy, and the terrible food in small amounts, sleeplessness, torture, and above all, hopelessness. This is what Joseph had to wait through before his dream came true in a most unexpected way.

A disgrunteld people

The people of Israel were miraculously delivered from slavery in Egypt, led across the Red Sea by the mighty hand of Moses -- and then they waited. A journey that normally would have taken only a few weeks stretched to 40 years as they wandered rather aimlessly through the desert.

The book of Exodus frequently gives us indications of what this time of vigil was like: "The people grumbled against Moses, 'We are disgusted with this wretched food . . . Why did you lead us out into this desert to die? Were there not graves enough in Egypt?'" (Exodus 16:2-3). They were hardly models of patience.

Even poor Noah had to wait, cooped up in the ark with his irritable family and restless animals while the waters slowly retreated.

In the course of the Christian tradition, there is much evidence of this spirituality of waiting. Relatively late in life, Ignatius of Loyola realized he was being called by God to do great things.

But before he found his path he passed through a wide variety of experiences in the course of many years: a time of stark asceticism and prayer at Manresa, wandering to the Holy Land and back while living hand-to-mouth and sleeping in doorways, taking elementary courses in Paris alongside young kids, gathering a small band of followers and leading them through the Spiritual Exercises.

Only at the end of this long sojourn -- founding the Company of Jesus -- did he realize the great thing God called him to do.

In Dante's Purgatorio, the theme of waiting is on prominent display. Dante and Virgil encounter a number of souls who slouch at the foot of the mountain of purgatory, destined to make the climb to heaven but compelled for the time being to wait. How long? As long as God determines.

God has no express lane

All of this, I submit, is very hard for most of us. I suppose we human beings have always been in a hurry, but modern people especially seem to want what they want when they want it. We are driven, determined, goal-oriented, fast-moving. I, for one, can't stand waiting.

As a Chicagoan, I find myself unavoidably in a lot of traffic jams, and nothing infuriates me more. Usually stuck behind a massive truck, you have no idea when you will get where you want to be, and there is nothing you can do about it.

I hate waiting at doctors' offices; I hate waiting in line at the bank; I hate waiting for the lights to come back on when the electricity fails.

So when I'm told that waiting seems to belong to the heart of the spiritual life, I'm not pleased, for here, too, I want answers, direction, clarity -- and I want them pronto.

Part two of this article will appear on December 21, 2017.

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at