In a moment of almost divine inspiration, musician John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I’ve always been struck by the truth of that statement, and especially so during Advent—a paradoxical season in which the “now” and the “not yet” link arms in an odd union of time and tenses.
Through the angel’s announcement to Mary, we know that Christ is coming, but we don’t know what to do in the meantime. We have neither the wherewithal, nor the ability, to fashion a gift befitting the King of Kings, and so we’re tempted to simply put our feet up and read magazines, or head to the shopping malls where the illusory promise of retail therapy awaits. But when it comes time for the “Christ-mass”—time to welcome the Savior—we find our hands covered in newsprint, our credit cards maxed out, and our hearts empty. Even if we hadn’t spent all our time in the mall, or reading People and Us Weekly, we might not have had an appropriate gift to bring. But we would’ve had our hearts.
Yet it’s so easy to miss the chance to prepare our hearts because the “here and now” seems so dull when compared to the future. And it’s in this way that Advent is a metaphor for all of life. Indeed, it seems that we rarely enjoy the season we’re in. We miss the joy of singleness because we’re so eager to get married; we hardly notice Thursday because we’re working for the weekend; the week before vacation is a mere footnote to what’s yet to come; and Advent isn’t a time of spiritual preparation, but a frantic in-between time to shop before family arrives for the December 25 main event. But is life only experienced in brief, ecstatic moments? Judging from the way we live in the West, one has to wonder.
But the fact is this: Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. Or put another way: Most of life is lived in the in-between. And it’s by living in the duality of Advent—worshiping the Christ who is (and was and will be forever more) but is still to come—that we learn to make peace with this tension and even embrace it. In this week’s reading, Zechariah holds his son, John the Baptist, and says, “And child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” (Luke 1:76). As readers who have the benefit of knowing the whole story in advance, we are jarringly aware—perhaps this year for the first time—that John the Baptist lived the Advent.
He was the embodiment of the tension that we feel between the present and the future, yet he managed to balance both the “now” and the “not yet” in a way we often find difficult. As an adult, John lived fully in the present by calling people to repentance, yet he also embraced the future by announcing with clarity that he was preparing the way for One whose sandals he was not worthy to tie; One who was greater than himself.
Like John, we too are being called to “go before the Lord to prepare His ways.” But how will we do that this season? It’s doubtful any of us will follow John’s footsteps into the desert for a life of asceticism and prophetic teaching. But hopefully, all of us, like John, will prepare the way for the Christ this season by traversing the dry landscapes of our hearts. And if we stay there for a time and quiet ourselves, the Christ will come. In fact, we might even find that life is not found tomorrow or next week, but that life is available here and now. Christ is not yet born, but Mary is with Child. There is life before birth; there is life to come. Hallelujah. Let us prepare the way.
Heavenly Father, you have always sent your prophets to prepare the way. This Advent grant that I, like John the Baptist, would embrace the present while preparing for the future. Grant me the strength and courage to spend time in the dry places of my heart so that I might welcome your Son, when He appears, with love and reverence. Amen.
Scripture Reading: Luke 1:57-80
Editor’s note: This article was originally published December 2008. It is the second of four articles devoted to the Advent season. Read Part 1 here. Use these articles as a guide to prepare your heart for the celebration of Christ’s birth.