A lesson from Ralphie on active waiting

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Traditions have a way of sneaking up on you. One minute you’re doing something a little different and then — snap — you’ve been doing it for nearly 20 years.

That’s our family with the movie “A Christmas Story.”

If you’re one of the few people who have never heard of it, it’s a story that takes place in the 1930s about a young boy named Ralphie whose goal is to get a particular present for Christmas: In his words — Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.

Ralphie is vigilant in the weeks leading up to Christmas. While he hopes to find the present under the tree on Christmas morning, he doesn’t just sit back and wait. He takes action: He drops hints at the breakfast table, he sneaks ads for the toy into his parents’ magazines, he writes an essay about it for his teacher, and, finally, he goes

to Santa Claus himself to plead his case.

One Thanksgiving afternoon, years ago, after flipping back and forth between the New York and Philadelphia parades, I tuned in to watch some football to the groaning of my five children. Thinking I was being clever, I told them that I was sorry, but on Thanksgiving afternoon, every channel has football on. It’s called tradition.

That’s when my darling, loving and quite supportive wife suggested we watch a DVD to the cheers of the children.

I’m not quite sure exactly how “A Christmas Story” was chosen. Though I vaguely remember that I acquiesced when given a choice between that and “Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow.” It was a toss-up.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen the movie. In fact, I, along with a group of friends, saw it when it premiered at the theater. However, this time as I was watching, I began to see some interesting parallels.

Watching Ralphie’s plight as he yearned for his desired gift, I realized that, in a sense, he was in his season of waiting, but Ralphie’s waiting isn’t just hopeful, it’s also active.

During Advent, our church is in its season of waiting, and that waiting needs to be active.

The Advent season has two parts. The second part — which is the week before Christmas — focuses on the waiting for our commemoration and celebration of the birth of Jesus.

But the first part of Advent, the larger part, we are waiting and preparing for the Second Coming of Jesus which is closer than we think because, as Saint Paul reminds us, “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.…”

The recently canonized Saint John Henry Newman said that “Advent is a time of waiting, it is a time of joy because the coming of Christ is not only a gift of grace and salvation, but it is also a time of commitment because it motivates us to live the present as a time of responsibility and vigilance.”

Our waiting this Advent season — while hopeful — must also be “a time of responsibility and vigilance,” in other words, a time of action.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus compares his second coming to Noah. Jesus says that the people “did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.”

Noah did not know exactly when the rains would come either. But he did know that they would. Noah was active in his waiting, preparing for that day.

As part of our hopeful and active waiting and preparation, we must build our own vessel to float above the pressures of society — especially in this time of year when the secular idea of Christmas with all its activities of tree lightings and caroling and parades and shopping and visits to Santa and gifts can lull us into the flood of commercialization and materialism of the season.

Along with our material preparation — the wreathes and garland and lights and the tree — we should also try to give some time for our spiritual preparation.

During this Advent season, we can be active by participating in the Eucharist — the source and summit of our Christian life — as often as possible, at least weekly. Go to confession — “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works,” Saint Augustine said.

Spend time with our Lord in Adoration. Find a church that is offering Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. 

Consider getting an Advent calendar and spend a little time daily to reflect on what each day reveals. There are many you can even find easily online for children and adults. Perhaps set up an Advent wreath and light a candle each Sunday of Advent. With each candle you can read a short Bible verse or say a prayer. Just Google Advent Candle Prayers. There’s plenty out there.

If you don’t already do so, try adding these actions to your holiday preparation for a more fulfilling season. It only takes a first time doing something a little different to create a tradition.

On Christmas morning, after ripping through the brilliantly wrapped gifts, little Ralphie sits between his parents, disappointed that his desired gift was not under the tree. (Spoiler Alert!)

Then his father points to something behind a desk. Ralphie’s mother didn’t know about this gift. In fact, no one knew — except the father. Ralphie joyfully leaps over to find one more gift, a gift from his father: The Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.

Ralphie didn’t know the gift was there — but his father did.

Dean P. Johnson teaches in Camden and is a member of Mary Mother of Mercy Parish, Glassboro.