In Hope, We Wait
by Jeny Aquino
To be completely honest, this time of year used to be really difficult for me.
I remember how hard it was to walk around during the Christmas season. Seeing families together and decorations all around was a bittersweet sight in my eyes. For several years, I suffered from the “holiday blues”, which made it very difficult for me to fully appreciate and celebrate the Advent and Christmas season. People would always tell me to “cheer up” and to remember what the season is all about. While doing that made sense, I didn’t truly know what the season meant for me.
I was very fortunate to grow up with a Catholic education. I didn’t always appreciate that blessing, but now I am incredibly grateful. One of the many important things I remember is learning about and celebrating the Advent season every year. My school would have brief, but meaningful, morning assemblies in which we would light a candle on the school’s Advent wreath each week. We would sing and pray together, and I would happily join in. One particular year, I remember having the honor of lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath and feeling overjoyed with happiness. It wasn’t until after my 6th grade year where I began to question the celebration.
I can’t exactly recall how or when it began to change, but one day I woke up and realized my whole world was different. As a result, preparation for Christmas in my house was surrounded by nonstop fighting, superficial dinners with the relatives, and an endless amount of broken promises. As I watched the candles on the Advent wreath being lit, I saw less of the coming of Jesus, and more of a countdown of waiting for when the season would be over.
It wasn’t until my initial conversion experience in 2008 when I began to come alive in my faith and I was able to see God more in my life. I attended my first Steubenville Conference with the theme “Witness”, and left the conference with a renewed relationship with God and a hopeful heart. As the months after the conference followed, and Advent drew near, I was more confident that I wouldn’t experience the sadness I tended to feel around the holidays. However, come December, I was filled with a great deal of emptiness and despair amidst the usual chaos in my life. And somehow, I became incredibly frustrated in a new way, because I thought that having a relationship with God and holding faith in my heart would have cured the loneliness I felt around Christmas. I thought my life and home would revert back to what it once was if I believed in the power of Christ.
As I attended my next Steubenville conference the following year, I began to grow further in my faith and intimacy with God. I left the conference confident each year that my Advent and Christmas would be different. However, the same problems pursued, and so did my suffering. This continued on, year after year, conference after conference, and I began to lose hope. Thoughts like “maybe it’s just me” and “I can’t wait ‘til this season is over” would plague my mind. All I could think about was if this was how the season would always be, then I couldn’t wait for January to arrive.
Even though I could feel my faith growing each year, I also felt a lingering pain that just wouldn’t go away, like a sore that never fully healed. I had always learned that Advent was a time of waiting. And there I was, still waiting for things to be different.
What does Advent really mean? What is the Christmas season truly about?
I could answer these questions easily with textbook definitions and quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but I couldn’t tell you what Advent and Christmas meant in my own heart. If these questions were so easily answerable, then what was I doing wrong?
Last December, I was particularly pessimistic about the Advent and Christmas season. It had been a really difficult year, and I felt a sad acceptance and expectation of the usual holiday blues. I was driving on my way home from running some errands, and found myself waiting at a red light. Usually, I just space out and wait for the light to change, but out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. I saw a man sitting down under a bridge, covered in a blanket trying to stay warm. He was sitting next to a handmade cardboard sign that read “Smile. Jesus is coming”. Before I could react, the light turned green and I had to drive. As I passed the man, I could have sworn that he looked into my eyes and smiled. Like a child, I cried all the way home. Even though it was just a small gesture, it felt like God had sent that man to me. When I passed the same street the next day, the man was gone, but his smile and message stayed within my heart.
Have you ever lost something and looked all over for it, tossing things about, only to give up hope after not finding it? Then, later, you find it, whether you were looking for it or not, either in a very obvious place or somewhere you just didn’t think to look? That has happened to me so many times. In a way, this story is a bit like that. Somewhere along the way, I lost the joy and spirit I had in the Advent season, and tossed around all the blessings and good things in my life, trying to find what I thought I didn’t have. I lost hope in what it meant to prepare for and celebrate the birth of Christ. But when and where I least expected it, I found it.
While some of the bad things in my life didn’t entirely change, I felt like something inside me did. Last Christmas was one of the best Christmases I had had in a long time. Families I saw on the streets looked happier. The decorations looked much more beautiful. And I could swear that my smile was a bit brighter.
Sometimes it can be easy to dwell on the negative parts of our lives. We can look at them so much that we may even forget all the good around us. We can lose something in ourselves. Something so precious: hope.
Maybe I wasn’t doing anything wrong intentionally, but without even realizing it, I had closed off my heart. I would remember past bad experiences around the holidays, and in a sad attempt to protect myself, I would close off my heart to everyone around me, especially God. In doing so, I still sought Him out, but without hope in His promise, I could not fully understand the depth of His love for me. Because all along, God had been trying to reach me. I thought God had abandoned me, but in reality it was me who was running from God.
I know now that while sometimes we may lose things, we can never lose God. We can never lose ourselves if we reside in Him.
The Advent season is still upon us, but before you know it, Christmas will be here. I spent so long trying to speed up the season, and now all I want is for it to slow down a bit. I never realized how when we try to skip to Christmas, we may sometimes not see and appreciate all that the Advent season has to offer.
While we await the birth of Christ in this season, we are reminded of what that truly means. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son. Amidst the chaos and self-destruction within humanity, God sent us Jesus Christ, to fully rid the world of all fear, suffering, and sin. But while Jesus came into this world to shelter us from evil, it is still up to us to live according to God’s will. Advent reminds us of the first coming of Christ into our world, and makes us aware that one day, there will be a second.
Since the day that stranger smiled at me, I knew that I was done running from God. And I know that there is no turning back.
I pray that for the remainder of this Advent season, you can also come to realize who Jesus is in your heart. Sometimes life can get to us. We can be filled with hopelessness. We can even catch the “holiday blues”. But above all, we can overcome everything this world has to offer, with all that Christ offers. No matter where you are in your faith, I pray you never lose hope. For Romans 12:12 reads “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer”, and that is exactly how we should be in this season, and every day of our lives.
So smile. Jesus is coming.