Preparing the gifts: Cultivating patience in a season of waiting

When it comes to the liturgical calendar, I’ve always been more Team Lent than Team Advent.

I realize I’m firmly in the minority here — almost every other Catholic I know goes full-on Buddy the Elf when it comes to Advent but approaches Lent with a vague sense of dread and trepidation. At a basic level, this makes sense. The weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with fun and festivity, with baking cookies and exchanging gifts and watching endless hours of hopelessly predictable Hallmark movies (at least in my family). What’s not to love? The weeks leading up to Easter, on the other hand, are essentially the opposite: a fast instead of a feast, a time of reflection and repentance with little to no secular traditions to accompany it. And there are definitely no Hallmark movies — I don’t envision Kiss Me at the Fish Fry or Don’t Give Up Love for Lent becoming blockbusters. (Either that or I’ve totally stumbled upon an untapped market! Let me know in the comments below.)

But perhaps this stark contrast highlights precisely why I’ve always been partial to Lent — it feels so much more simple and straightforward to enter into the season. We make sacrifices to rid us of unnecessary attachments, to demonstrate contrition for our sins, and to unite our suffering with that of Christ on the cross. And because there typically aren’t a million places to go and people to see during Lent, we’re able to actually slow down and take stock of our relationship with the Lord, to see what’s holding us back from true intimacy with Him. That way, when Easter finally arrives after 40 days of somber prayer and reflection, the joy we experience is that much more profound — much in the same way that dimming the lights at the beginning of Easter Vigil mass makes the illumination of the sanctuary during the Gloria all the more stirring.

Living Advent, on the other hand, is a bit more…confusing. In the eyes of the Church, it’s technically a penitential season as well — and yet, everywhere we look there are cookies and parties and gifts and COOKIES, y’all. We’re supposed to be quieting our hearts and minds and waiting for the coming of our Lord, but when does one find time for this in between all the shopping and baking and general merrymaking? As I alluded to before, a lot of this tension stems from today’s society, which starts celebrating Christmas the day after Halloween and encourages us to spend all of November and December in a full-on holiday frenzy. But this year, more than any other year before, I’m realizing there’s another dimension to my struggle. Advent isn’t just difficult because of external pressures. Advent is difficult because I simply don’t know how to wait well.

Case in point: While in line at the grocery store, I often find myself slowly edging my cart closer and closer to the poor soul ahead of me as I not-so-subtly tap my foot and glance repeatedly at the time on my phone. If I have to wait on hold for more than a few minutes, I’ll hang up the phone altogether — after all, who needs the bank, the doctor, or the insurance company? And if I’m hungry, or worse, hangry, it’s everything I can do to not plunge into the depths of despair as I wait 2 entire minutes for the microwave to reheat my leftovers. I don’t recall being this way as a child, but now, in the age of fast food, high-speed internet, and Amazon Prime, I’ve become the living embodiment of the song “We Need a Little Christmas,” emphasis on “RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE.”

I didn’t realize just how impatient I had gotten until I started dating Mr. Pink Tie. He is an incredibly patient man, one who never fails to laugh in amusement as I count down each excruciating microwave minute. And ever since we got engaged, it’s felt nearly impossible to wait for the wedding! I am so excited for our special day, when all the people we love most in the world will be in one place, when we will enter into not just a contract but a sacrament, and when we will celebrate this sacrament with good food, good wine, and bad dancing (I certainly put the “bust” in “bust a move”). And of course, I’m even more enthused for our actual marriage, when we’ll get to see each other every day, build a home and family together, and endure all the ups and downs of life by each other’s side. It’s all so exciting that our wedding date can feel like a lifetime away.

And so I’ve been reflecting on the parallels between Advent and our engagement. If lived well, both are times of preparation and joyful anticipation. There’s obviously preparation on a practical level — before our wedding, we have to plan the mass, coordinate the reception, complete all of our diocese’s marriage prep requirements, find a place to live, and more. There’s also preparation on a spiritual level, such as regularly receiving the sacraments, praying with and for each other, and seeking healing in areas where we may be wounded. Sure, we could elope tomorrow (and the thought has definitely crossed our minds), but then we would miss out on this precious time of building a solid foundation for the rest of our lives.

Advent is filled with a myriad of practical preparations as well: shopping, decorating, cooking, baking, and coordinating travel, to name a few. But on a spiritual level, the Church encourages us to build in time for silence and stillness, for prayer and penance. The mass readings invite us to truly journey with Mary and Joseph — quietly, steadily, patiently — longing as they did for a savior. We could skip straight to Bethlehem, but then we would miss out on what the Lord wants to do in our hearts as we lift our eyes from the darkness and follow that one bright star.

Recently, I shared my struggles with impatience with my spiritual director. As always, she had a wise and discerning response that changed my perspective on engagement. She reminded me that during this time, God is preparing the gifts of two individuals for each other. To ready us to both give and receive this gift, the Lord wants to heal and transform myself and Mr. Pink Tie like never before. In a way, our whole lives have been preparing us for our vocations, but that preparation accelerates and intensifies in the months leading up to “I do.”

I think something similar could be said of Christmas. We know that the magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ child, but more importantly, they brought themselves. Although they lacked the modern convenience of overnight shipping, they could have certainly sent their regards with someone of less importance so they could continue, uninterrupted, with their busy lives. But instead, they dropped everything and made the long journey themselves, and this must have pleased God far more than any precious metals or expensive perfumes ever could. During Advent, as with engagement, our Lord is preparing the gifts of two individuals for each other. As Jesus develops in Mary’s womb, growing into our long-awaited savior, the Holy Spirit readies our minds, hearts, and souls so that we can bring our full selves to the manger, so that we can drop everything and experience the “thrill of hope” that is God becoming man.

As a child, I remember trying my hardest to avoid stumbling upon my Christmas gifts prematurely. I would stay as far from my mom’s closet (where I was certain she hid them) as possible, knowing that I would enjoy the toys and trinkets so much more on the 25th. And since my parents often got us at least one gift that was too big or too awkward to wrap, we would wait eagerly in our bedrooms on Christmas morning until they told us it was okay to come out — we didn’t want to lay eyes on a single surprise too soon. For both Advent and the remainder of my engagement, I’m going to do my best to return to this childlike sense of wonder and savor this sweet time of giddy excitement. I’m going to trust that God, like my parents, knows what He’s doing and can’t wait to show me what He’s been preparing.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll eventually learn to navigate those grocery store lines and microwave minutes with the same amount of grace. Don’t hold your breath, though — you might be waiting a while. 🙂