For as long as anyone can remember, our community has teamed up with the neighboring township to sponsor “The Turkey Day 5k Run.” My son first participated in that race, just after he had turned five-years old. In those days, he would alternately run, and take breaks in the rickshaw/jogging stroller that we brought along for that purpose. He has long since graduated from the peditaxi, giving up his semi-ambulatory seat to his younger sister, Lizzie.
Over the years, I have consistently held down two “Turkey Day 5k” jobs for my family. I am responsible for (1) pushing the stroller, and (2) embarrassing our children. Every Thanksgiving morning, I wake up, and don an old stocking cap that my mother bought back in1972. It is known by my children as “The Chicken Hat.” When I put it on, it makes my head look poultry-like. It also, coincidentally, causes me to lift my beak to the heavens, and periodically let out a shrill, wild turkey call. In the course of a thirty minute run, I gobble maybe fifteen to twenty times. I am a counselor, not a zoologist. And so, I can’t be certain of the true purpose of the feral male turkey’s call. All I know is that when this Tom lets out his warble, it causes my offspring to speed up and move briskly away from their father. Who knows how many times they’ve broken free from the pack of runners thanks to me, or how many minutes I have shaved off of their running times?
For the last couple of years, my son, John Harry has taken a decidedly more serious approach to this race than his dad. Starting almost a month ago, he has been getting up early, and running the two and a half miles to school. Last year, he trained like this for about a week, and was disappointed when he finished about the same as he had the previous year. With the aid of his mom’s sports watch, and an earlier start in his pre-season training regimen, he is attempting to win the “Under Twelve” age division.
Last Tuesday, I found myself taking a proud father’s mental snapshot of my Fifth Grader as he prepared to leave the house before his run. He had tucked his head into a knit stocking cap to ward off the thirty-eight degree chill. Over the top of his knit hat, he had squeezed on a frayed baseball cap to keep the rain out of his eyes. I watched in admiration as this single-minded young man put his head down, and took the first few resolute strides out of the driveway.
This Sunday inaugurated another Advent Season. In the Catholic tradition, the word “Advent,” has always been associated with “waiting.” Israel waited and waited for a Messiah in the royal line of David. Mary and Joseph waited for the birth of their son. Simeon and Anna waited for the prophesies to be fulfilled.
In the warp and woof of my life, I generally think of waiting as an exercise in passivity. When I think of waiting, I think of sitting in my car as a train passes, hoping that soon, the caboose will show up so that I can get moving again. I think of things like getting my license renewed at the Department of Transportation. By extension, then, a season that is dedicated to waiting can easily be painted with a big purple brush of passivity.
But if you peel back the purple veneer from this season, it is hard not to notice another narrative at work. For every image of peaceful receptivity, there is a profoundly active image of “preparing the way.”
This year, my son, John Harry is my symbol for Advent. For about a month now he has been waiting for the big race, but as he waits, he has been anything but passive. His stated goal in all of this preparation has been to finish the race in the front of the pack. My bet is, that wherever he finishes in the race, he will enjoy an important side benefit. All of his work will pay off in more fully enjoying the race itself.
This Sunday’s apocalyptic Gospel (Luke 21: 25-28; 34-36) described The Parousia, when everything will be brought to completion. In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagined that our entrance into heaven or hell will have little to do with an external judgment imposed upon us by an angry God. Rather, he imagined that the choice to inhabit paradise will be placed in our own hands. If we have been actively training for this moment, through a life of ongoing conversion, we will be attracted to the things of heaven, and will instinctively move toward it.
Like my son John Harry, our ultimate goal is to successfully cross the finish line. But there is a side benefit to all this training. Strengthening our muscles through our sacred disciplines (e.g. immersion into Christian community, contemplation of God’s word, reception of the sacraments, loving acts of service, dedication to what is good, true, and loving) has a way of making us more fully enjoy the race itself. In the words of Saint Catherine, “On the way to heaven is heaven.”