December 7, 2014

The Christian season of Advent is a time of preparation and watchfulness, in which Christians look for the signs of God coming to be with us long ago in Bethlehem, right now in our own lives, and in our future. Therefore, many of the readings and devotions of this season have the theme of paying attention, looking for God’s appearance. But there are two ways of paying attention, and they have opposite effects on our spiritual lives

One way of paying attention can be summed up in the phrase “look out!” Our culture is good at “look out.” A lot of our attention is focused on the dangers of the world, things like terrorists, salmonella outbreaks, and stock market crashes. We worry about the food we feed our children, the strangers in our midst, and anything that could be an early warning sign of impending disease or catastrophe. We are not merely attentive; we are hyper-vigilant, and each new day, our media, politics, and consumer culture identify new risks for which we must watch out. But this is not a welcoming alertness. It is the incessant rumination of anxiety. And rather than open us to see what new and wonderful things might be appearing, this anxiety closes up our awareness and crowds out our vision. We become alert to the wrong things and cannot see what really matters.

The other way of paying attention might be summed up in the word “behold!” To behold is to look without possessing something. It is to continue to keep our attention open so that we can see things as they really are: an ongoing gift that constantly develops and changes before our eyes, each second of which is pregnant with the purposes of God. The challenge of Advent is cultivating the ability to behold, and this takes practice. We have to learn not to be overly attached or concerned about any one thing so that we can open up the possibilities of all things. But when we do this, we make room in our lives for something new and incomprehensible—for God to be born in our midst.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University, Maryland. 

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