Fr Martin Pender
I have a thing about watches! However, one of the criteria I have, when I buy a new watch, is that it must absolutely have a second hand. It’s just that I like “keeping time” and “being on time” in everything I do. Yes, I am well aware that time-keeping is not a common trait in the Irish experience, but here in Africa it is even a scarcer commodity! Time is measured differently here, and this got me thinking about the readings for this Sunday and the difference between our time and God’s time, between agitation and patience.
As I reflected on the readings today, I was on top of Table Mountain, one of the main tourist attractions in Cape Town. It is an unbelievable experience to be on top of a flat mountain so high above sea level looking at the world from a different perspective. And then, out of habit, I looked at my watch, watching the seconds go by. Yes, I knew I could “time” anything I wanted to. But then the thought struck me, “But who wants to time things anyway?” And then I remembered the car journey I had just made through the chaotic traffic in Cape Town to reach Table Mountain, and how I had to stop at almost every red light in the city centre, and how I automatically looked at my watch to “time” how long I had to wait at the red lights! Yes, I need to put on some patience.
The Second Reading today puts it this way: “Think of a farmer: how patiently he waits for the precious fruit of the ground until it has had the autumn rains and spring rains.” Having worked for many years in the parish of Ballymitty, I got to understand that a farmer must be attentive, tolerant and patient because you cannot expect crops to appear in a day or so. Farmers had to learn patience through many seasons.
But what about those of us who are not farmers? How do we “put on” patience? Let’s look at this from two different angles. First, when I am impatient it prevents me from noticing what is happening in the present time, at the present moment. I become stuck in the future worrying about what will happen and how to make it happen; about where I am supposed to be by now; and how the “traffic lights” will not let me go.
Many people live in the past instead of the present. We re-hash mistakes we made and finally think of a retort that would have topped someone’s nasty remark, and so on. But we need to learn that the present moment is the only one we actually live in. The precious goodness of God makes everything exist right now, not tomorrow or yesterday.
Second, we need to recall that God is the God of Providence and therefore our future is not just haphazard or arbitrary but is held in the compassionate hands of the Holy Trinity. God has promised that in ways we cannot understand, the crooked will be made straight. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed.” Our afflicted lives will be filled with goodness. Yes, God writes straight with crooked lines.
So, from a Christian perspective, patience is a way of remembering the constant love of God, no matter how frightening or disconcerting the future may seem or may actually be. We need to slow down, look around, and live – in grace.
Think about our Blessed Mother’s “be it done unto me,” her lifelong daily prayer, her nine months carrying the Son of God in the tabernacle of her womb, and her place at the foot of the Cross. Notice that, when the angel spoke to her at the Annunciation, she did not demand guarantees and full details. She relied on God’s love. She waited.
And, the Second Person of the Trinity, alive to earth’s ways, waited until it was the proper time to come into the world as the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus. Then when he sensed that he was hungry, he suckled at his mother’s breast, burping only when the occasion presented itself, not before. And think of his years of being just a simple carpenter day after day.
In essence, this expresses the deeper meaning of Advent: for something to be sublime there must first be sublimation; fasting is the necessary prelude to feasting; greatness of soul is contingent on first nobly carrying tension, great joy is not experienced if we are not first properly prepared, and what’s truly divine can only appear after a certain kind of gestation. Advent is about proper waiting, seeing time from God’s perspective and providence.
The world and all its life lives in a continuous Advent. Our world is a creation unfinished, a groaning for another wondrous coming, a second birth. Our final happiness and healing, rich or poor, will not be quarried here. We who believe that heaven once came down to earth also believe that every grace of the earth will be lifted to undying life by our God made flesh.
As I looked down from Table Mountain I realised that we cannot allow time to become a prison for the soul, the second hand on the clock cannot become a dungeon of despair. Every moment is meant to be a moment of grace when we meet God in the now. When we understand Advent, time, and life in general, in this way, then we truly haven’t got a second to lose.