“How are you preparing for Christmas?” asks Mrs. Kim expectantly, holding a microphone from the church’s ancient sound equipment. Even before she reaches the question mark, the front of the sanctuary is peppered with eager little hands. Mrs. Kim begins to pick from among the children, who in various states of euphoria cannot wait to share their thoughts. “Making cookies!” squeals Lydia. “Putting up our tree!” smiles Maya. “Elf on the Shelf,” says Jack, sweeping his pre-preteen hair from his eyes and revealing a cool, but not too cool, smirk. The sanctuary nods along with each answer, affirming the kids in their holiday cheer.
Fine answers, I thought. But really, I was waiting for Paul. Everyone waits for Paul to give answers during the children’s sermon, because everyone knows he is about to delight all listeners with his characteristic zest for life. Mrs. Kim stoops to hold the microphone down to his nearly shaking body. “SHOPPING!” he bursts out, toppling forward as if his outstretched hand weighed at least three times his body. After about thirty seconds of sharing from his extensive gift list, Mrs. Kim has to cut him off the way music silences an overly loquacious Oscar recipient.
Mrs. Kim proceeds to ask the children about the meaning of Christmas (“Jesus!” “God!” “The savior dying for our sins.” Paul, of course, shouts, “PRESENTS!”), and then illuminates the analogy to the Advent season. “Just like you are waiting for your presents, so too were the people of God waiting for their Savior.” Since the coming sermon concerns Isaiah 2’s beautiful and prophetic City of Peace passage, Mrs. Kim speaks to the children of Christology and eschatology in non-“ological” terms. “Eventually, Jesus will return again to renew the earth. Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and waiting for Jesus to return.” The kids all nod at her summary, as do the adults.
Nearing the end of the children’s sermon, Mrs. Kim circles back around to the initial question of preparation. “So,” she asks, “Jesus will come back one day, but what should we do while we wait?” The question strikes me as quintessentially biblical. That is, it resonates as both metaphysically complex and completely accessible at the same time; in it are still waters that run deep. The children all stare up at her, eager for some mic time, but reluctant to give wrong answers. She asks again—making it clear to the children that the question was not merely a rhetorical device—and smiles warmly as if to say, there are no wrong answers.
She asks once more, this time with a Protesant urgency to keep the entire service under ninety minutes. But the children have no answers to give. Even Paul falls silent and glances sideways at his mom, perhaps hoping she will telepathically communicate the answer. After a pregnant pause, Mrs. Kim concludes in a way that I sometimes conclude my class when I know I’ve got mere seconds to give homework, answer at least four questions about that homework, and send my students along to their next period. “We’ll have to leave that answer for next time,” she says as she dismisses the kids back to their parents with that catechistic cliffhanger.
I felt discomfited, because when I say “We’ll have to leave that answer for next time” in the classroom, it likely means and they never heard from me on this matter again. “We’ll have to leave that answer for next time” is not a lie; it’s a verbal tic, much like “um.” And I definitely do not fault Mrs. Kim for its use. But this question is too central to the Christian faith to leave it for next time—the next season, January 2020, when all American attention will have turned toward exchanging sugar cookies and figgy pudding for low-carb, low-sugar imitation pudding in preparation for a short-lived diet. But man does not live on fat-free cottage cheese alone. So, what do we do while we wait? The kids had no idea how to answer. Would the adults in the congregation, if asked, know any better? If I posed the question “What do you do while you wait for Jesus?” to a classroom full of tenth graders receiving our best effort at a classical education—to whom I teach church history—my bet is that I would encounter a similar stunned silence. If not silence, a tenth-grade boy might offer a cheeky answer like, “Play Xbox until my eyes bleed,” and I would wonder privately if I’d taught them anything at all to imitate.
Advent is a season in which I suspect a lack of sync between the rhythms of the historic church calendar and the beats that have been drummed into this culture within the last century. Specifically, the church is meant to be on a whole rest, while the culture tap-dances to eighth notes. And because bodies respond to music, children feel the helter-skelter BPMs that adults around them create. I’ve noticed this mostly in my own classroom. Rhythmic structures are organized into measures for the purpose of notation. So if students are taking note of my Advent expectations by feeling the rhythm of my classroom during the Advent measures, then they’ve probably learned that Advent is allegro. That is, a marathon and a sprint. It hurdles rapidly and frenetically toward the Christmas break on a mission to tie the prettiest bow onto a semestral package. To illustrate the point, this year, I actually started a new text on Galileo with students on December 5 with days to spare before exams.
But Advent is supposed to be largo, or maybe adagio on airport travel days. It is a time of fasting, wonder, and patience—all terms the essential natures of which require self-control and a slower pace. While we wait, the church is to spend time cultivating within herself habits of discipline and contemplation. The historical church practiced abstinence from personal overconsumption and rich foods like meats, oils, and alcohol in the month or so leading up to Christmas in preparation to receive the richer gift of the incarnation. And since I encouraged my students to dine richly and quickly in the Advent weeks of school, not at all adhering to the recommended thirty chews per bite, all I can do now is repent using a confession from Central Presbyterian Church in New York City and pray that God grants me a sliver of wisdom for next year’s Advent season:
Merciful God, we confess that we have forgotten the promise of your kingdom and do not know how to prepare for your Advent. Give us the simple wonder of the shepherds, the intelligent courage of the magi, and the patient faith of Mary and Joseph, that we may journey with them to Bethlehem and find the good news of a child born for us. Now, we ask you to make us ready for his coming. Amen.