Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The season of Advent represents an invitation to keep watch, anticipating the arrival of Christ, the light of the world. In the life of the Church, a vigil is a unique liturgical celebration that introduces us to the mystery or feast being celebrated, inviting us to keep watch and prepare our hearts. Many of these vigils are celebrated only in monasteries or religious houses, as the practice of anticipatory Masses (on Saturdays or the day before a holy day of obligation) has become more common. While we may not fully recover the liturgical expression of vigils, we can, I believe, find renewal in the spiritual and emotional disposition of keeping vigil.
One who keeps vigil must be, first of all, awake. A good vigil-keeper stays alert and awake, attentive to what is happening around them. They know what they anticipate, what they are looking for, and that attentive watching helps them be prepared. We most often associate vigils with the dark, small hours of the night. If we imagine keeping vigil we will often think of a solitary figure on watch. This suggests a degree of silence and solitude. In that silence and solitude, the one who keeps vigil will also review what they know about the thing or person expected. And so the vigil of Advent takes place as darkness increases. Throughout this season, the Scripture that we read at Mass reminds us of the hoped for Messiah, the one whose coming was foretold by the prophets, and the one whom Israel eagerly anticipates. As we keep this vigil in the darkness, we might also notice things becoming more quiet. Though this season is full of busy activity, step outside on a winter’s night and notice how quiet it is compared to the warmer seasons. While the nights are especially silent, the season of Advent reminds us to find silence. It is in silence that we can contemplate God more perfectly, in silence where we can find the space to think more clearly and find the space to focus, not on the busyness and noise of the season, but on the goal and purpose of the season, which is the coming birth of the Messiah.
In order to stay awake, to be attentive in silence and in solitude, we also need patience. How easy it would be for the one keeping watch to spend the entire time just wishing that the day would come, that the watch would be over. But an impatient vigil keeper is likely to miss something. In that darkened, silent space, patience is necessary. And so the weeks of Advent remind us to be patient – it is not Christmas yet! Even as our longing for the Christ the Light is increasing, there is good reason to wait. In these Advent weeks, God wants us to learn some spiritual lesson, to recognize Him in a way that we have not before, and to be attentive to His presence in places where previously it has been hard to see. Patience also reminds us that the vigil is something that stands apart, a unique task given to us, and not one to rush through or get out of the way.
There is more I could say about balancing the urgent feeling to finish something and the need to patiently work through the present moment, but my space is growing short for this column and there are still many days left of the Advent season. Instead, I will propose that we continue to keep watch for Christ, entering into the silence, staying alert, and preparing for the day when we will behold His light in a new way. And to keep us watching, I will also promise to pick up this theme again next week, to offer some ideas for that balance and that patience that is required for a truly fruitful Advent season.