The baby’s wail rang through the church, reverberating through the air, an audible avalanche.
It shattered the silence after communion with such piercing power I was momentarily stunned.
The mother had already retreated to the back of the building—no doubt frantically trying to soothe her child. As we knelt, the despairing screams continued, escalating in intensity.
It was strange, I noticed, almost as if I was observing myself from the outside – but my prayer suddenly deepened. Rather than being distracted, I found myself entering into the cry itself. Or rather, letting it enter into me, giving voice to prayers I had not dared to pray, pain I had not dared to cry about, The cry became a prayer that ran over me and in me like a river.
On the outside, I was collected and still. My hands were folded and my face was tranquil.
Inside, I wailed.
The cries ran through me like strong currents, up and down, up and down. There was nothing in me but cry. Nothing but a long, breathless lament.
I felt it physically in me like it was alive.
Strangely, too, it was more than just my cry. It was the sound of suffering, almost other-worldly. It seemed like centuries of ache coursing through me. It blew through caverns in me I didn’t know were there. I gave in to it. I gave it space to wail itself out.
It was one of the most sacred, mysterious moments I’ve ever known.
And when it all subsided, I left Mass that day a different woman, emotionally spent and at the same time new.
I think, now, as we enter the new liturgical year, that what I felt that day is something of the whole Advent experience, which could be summed up in two words: Awaken and Ache.
Because initially, Advent is a season to be startled. To be shaken out of complacency. When we are lulled to sleep by life, the Lord uses suffering as well as joy to shake us awake, “for somehow the coming of God and the shaking of mankind are connected,” wrote Fr. Alfred Delp before he was executed by the Nazis in 1945.
There is a scene in the play The Jeweler’s Shop, written by Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), in which one of the characters Anna is out on the street, longing for love and happiness, wanting to be seen. The priest figure, Adam, stops her and says to her:
And now look over there. Those are the foolish virgins. They are asleep and they are laying by the wall. One has even rolled across the pavement and fallen into the gutter.
To you it seems that they are asleep in those recesses, but in reality they too are walking down the street. They are walking in their sleep. They are walking in a lethargy—they have a dormant space in them. You now feel that space in you, because you too were falling asleep. I have come to wake you. I think I am in time.
Maybe we think we are awake already. Sometimes, we do not realize how asleep we actually are.
Years ago, while taking heavy pain medication during a vacation in California, I slept through an earthquake. I awoke long enough to realize that the room was lurching side-to-side. I heard feet running in the hotel hallway and I heard screaming outside. Groggily I thought, “This must be an earthquake.”
And then I fell back asleep.
I was horrified when I did awaken. I had no idea how much the drugs I’d been taking for an infection had compromised my judgment and how sick I actually was. But isn’t that what happens when we stuff ourselves with earthly things—alcohol, food, shopping, social media, noise—so that we don’t feel what we don’t want to feel?
Drugged and numb, we are unable to experience real longing. Deep desire.
The very things—the only things—that make us capable of Advent.
Yes, we are capable of sleeping through Christ’s coming—his coming to us in the Eucharist, as we daydream through Mass. Or sleeping through His presence in other people, as we gaze right through them, preoccupied with our thoughts. Or remaining unmoved by the suffering of others, allowing ourselves to become accustomed and comfortable with other people’s pain.
And yes, it is possible, terrifyingly possible, that if we do not allow ourselves to be shaken we will sleep through the Divine piercing our humanity with His very Person.
But the Church is a mother, opening the blinds and letting in the light—yes, it is only a thin strip of dawn now, but it should stir us out of sleep. This early Advent is the pale promise of a morning: I have come to wake you. I think I am in time.
Why is it so important that we be awake?
Because only someone awake can ache. And only someone awake can really wait.
For thousands of years, God’s chosen people waited and ached for the Messiah.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
But we are not only half-asleep, we also have no idea how to wait. And we are completely uncomfortable with waiting.
We used to have no choice. The rhythm of the earth kept our time and there was no escaping the seasons…there were seasons for strawberries and seasons for squash and seasons for allowing the earth to sleep under snow. And we lived by seasons, earthly and liturgical.
We allowed ourselves to be obedient to them.
But there is a great rebellion in us still, and we think we have learned how to be free of time.
After all, we can buy strawberries in January at the store down the street. But if there is a line at the check-out, we grab our phone and check our messages. After all, we are busier than we’ve ever been. We don’t want to waste even a sliver of space in our day.
I googled “how to manage time” and found 8.4 billion results.
The irony is that rather than freedom, we have found only slavery as we tried to harness hours and make them conform to our desires. Somehow we have come to fear emptiness and so we manage it by filling it—until we not only cannot find time, we cannot find ourselves.
“Freedom is encounter,” says Fr. Delp. “Not contrariness, rebellion, or arrogance…if man sets out upon this Advent road, he will be granted the great encounter, for man’s liberation happens as an encounter.”
The thing is, we can’t encounter something—Someone—unless we have first been without it.
And so another grace of Advent is to plunge ourselves into our own need, to feel it, run our fingers over it, taste it. Experience ache. So that we are capable of the divine encounter we call Christmas.
This sober waiting is to enter into the thousands of years of waiting of a people aware of their own desperate interior poverty and to be obedient to a liturgy that exists to not only remind us of that Long Sacred Ache but to make it present again in mystery.
The best way to awaken and to ache is to intentionally enter into the liturgy this Advent. The Mass, the readings, the hymns, the candles.
The world has already erupted into a riot of color and secular songs of celebration. But inside, we will hold vigil. We will tell our hearts to be still and watchful.
We will wait.
“In the same way that lies have gone out from people’s hearts, penetrating throughout the world and destroying it, so should—and so will—the truth begin its healing service within our hearts.
“Light the candles wherever you can, you have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, what Advent must be, if we want to live.” – Fr. Alfred Delp
I have come to wake you. I think I am in time.