Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent 2017
By Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.
Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7
Find Sunday’s reading here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120317.cfm
In 1972 a study was published by psychologist Walter Mischel which has come today to be known as Stanford University’s Marshmallow Experiment. In this experiment children were placed in a room with a marshmallow in front of them. The children were told that they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for the tester to get back, the children could have two marshmallows. As you can imagine the video tapes of these children are quite funny. Children’s responses ranged across the spectrum: some children ate the marshmallow immediately; some children danced in their seat or licked the marshmallow until they would finally succumb to temptation and eat the whole thing; and some children waited the entire period until the tester returned and they received their second marshmallow. What this experiment has attempted to uncover is a link between delayed gratification and success—the longer children could delay gratification the more likely they would be successful in the future.
In watching the video of the Marshmallow Experiment, I couldn’t help but think how impatient we have become as a culture here in the United States. When I want something, I want it now! I’m sure many of us have heard that “patience is a virtue,” that good will come to those who wait. But is patience something we can develop? Is patience really required for a virtuous life? Yes, patience is a virtue, and we need it! Patience allows us to become like God, to share in God’s goodness. Patience gives us self-mastery of our will in our attempt to live the moral life, and thus patience is something we need to work on. God has been patient and continues to be patient with God’s people because God desires a relationship with humanity.
God will patiently wait for us to return to God because God is hungry for a relationship with us, yet we test God. Like the people of Israel we say, “You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage” (Is 63:16-17). The people in Isaiah suggest that either God hasn’t been a good parent in teaching them how to be patient and live in right conduct. Or they are just like children who cannot wait, and want God to come back and fix all of their mistakes. Since God is perfect, I would suggest that it is the later. God gives us the grace of patience, but often we choose not to strengthen the skill, and thus like the children who demonstrate a lack of patience in the marshmallow experiment, we too aren’t very successful later in life if we lack patience. Thankfully, we don’t have to go through life all on our own, relying on our own skill, because we have God, who helps us through the challenges.
Just like Israel, who is in need of God’s help, we too need help. Israel has experienced the devastation of war and exile: there is no king; the nation is not of great significance commercially or politically; and everything is in ruin. The Israelites have fallen under the control of the Mesopotamians and Cyrus of Persia is now their political ruler. From an ancient Israelite perspective, we can understand Cyrus as God’s instrument who carries out God’s will. God’s plan for the people, which is carried out by Cyrus, is to first lead the Israelites into exile and then restore them back to the Promised Land. However, this restoration doesn’t happen immediately—the people need to be patient, they need self-mastery. Yet they lament, they plead with God, asking God to “rend the heavens and come down” (63:19) and “wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from old” (64:2).
The people have come to recognize the need for God in their lives. They even recognize the need for patience! In their plea with God to “come down,” to be with them, they praise God’s glory, “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him” (64:3). “Those who wait for him,” those who patiently wait for God, are the ones who see the wonders of God. They are seeking to find God and waiting patiently for God’s coming. But this is not a passive event in which they sit on their rumps waiting for God to show up! No, those who wait patiently are preparing for God’s coming, so God “might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways” (64:4)! Like the children in the marshmallow experiment, we have a marshmallow placed before us. The Church has placed before us the sacraments and the Word of God to stare down or “fidget” with. Will we take advantage of this opportunity? Or will we sit idly this Advent? Will we be caught “doing right,” as we prepare for the “second marshmallow,” God’s coming?
… Let us delay gratification, wait patiently, prepare ourselves to receive God’s grace, allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s hands in this season of Advent.
—Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.
During this anxious waiting for God’s coming, the Israelites recognize their own faults: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rages; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt” (64:4-6). The Israelites recognize they have lost control of their lives, and all they do means nothing without God among them. Human actions are weak, but with God’s grace, with God in our hearts and minds, all is made pure when God is with us.
Thus, there is a desire to open ourselves up, to be formed and shaped by God’s hands. As a good parent, we call upon God “our father” to be like a potter and we the clay, to be the work of God’s hands (64:7). And only when we open ourselves up to God’s grace can restoration occur, and we become a community, like Jerusalem, to be a beacon of God’s greatness to the entire world. We begin to offer God praise and give thanks for all God’s mighty works and deeds.
As we continue to anticipate the celebration of God’s coming through the Incarnation of Christ in the season of Christmas, let us not seek instant gratification by celebrating the joy of this revelation prematurely. But let us delay gratification, wait patiently, prepare ourselves to receive God’s grace, allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s hands in this season of Advent. Let us keep our eyes, ears, nostrils, mind, and heart—listening, watching, and waiting for the signs of God working in our lives these next four weeks by taking some extra time for prayer, reading God’s word, and celebrating the sacraments. May we not sit waiting, but as we wait, may we begin the transformation of aligning our lives more closely to God.