People are “all secretly stretching / their hands out toward happiness. / And nobody grasps their hands.” From Jesuit priest and concentration camp victim Alfred Delp come these words of his 1933 play The Eternal Advent, written for his students at Stella Matutina boarding school in Feldkirch, Germany.

Advent can be a harder liturgical season to grasp than Lent. We understand Lent — a time of repentance and good works to remember and respond to God’s self-sacrificing love on Calvary. But what is Advent about, spiritually? The rest of the world is already celebrating Christmas. Christmas songs fill the air, Christmas decorations brighten offices and sidewalks, Christmas gift ideas beckon from every store. In a sense, Advent is a response to this — to “Christmas already.” Advent says: It is not Christmas yet! Advent says: This life is not heaven yet. The things of this world will not fill the hands that strain toward happiness.

Advent is a time of anticipation. In a world of noise, it is a time of silence. In a world of glitter, it is a time of poverty. In a world of doing, it is a time of simply being, with the Lord and His Mother in prayer. It validates our enduring sense that this earth is not our homeland, that we are made for something more.

What exactly is anticipation? Whereas an expectation, it is said, is a premeditated resentment, anticipation is exactly the inverse. Anticipation is premeditated gratitude. Anticipation is a recognition of one’s lack, one’s need for a Savior more powerful than oneself — so that God’s intervention is received with joy, rather than pridefully rejected or accepted only grudgingly.

In the Gospels, Luke uses the Greek word for “anticipate” to describe the people awaiting Zechariah outside the Temple, who realize that something supernatural must have happened to delay him (Lk 1:21). The same word appears when the Pharisees ask Christ whether He is the Messiah or whether they should wait for another (Matt 11:3).

In both of these situations, what is anticipated turns out to be both under- and fantastically over-whelming. Zechariah has nothing to say to the people; he cannot speak. The possible Messiah is tortured and ignominiously executed by the Roman occupiers. And yet Zechariah’s silence is pregnant with the miraculous, and Christ’s death issues in life for the world.

The only way to ready ourselves for these divine surprises is by prayer, the prayer Mary modeled in “pondering all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). This Advent, let us pledge to take more time for prayer, asking Mary to help us recognize our need for the Savior. When we are surprised to see Him a helpless babe in the manger, we will then still stretch out our hands, in gratitude and joy, to grasp His tiny hand. We will discover in His touch healing and peace.

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.