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advent academics

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I am in the midst of writing the last exam of my doctorate and perhaps ever! Of course there is still a dissertation to write and defend, but let's not think about that right now. This exam is a 6000-word essay which is due December 24. I suspect that I will email it to the professors late on the 23rd, after a careful final edit, and the next day board a plane to spend the holy days with family. Sigh of relief.

I must admit that I love the rhythm of the academic year. When you walk into your first day of class, you feel a nervous rush of excitement mixed with dread. You don't quite know what to expect, you are not certain you will be able to comprehend the material and do well on all the assignments, and you are never sure who will be with you on that particular slice of the learning journey (pardon the mixed metaphor), but the idea of diving into a subject you don't know much about is an invitation you can't refuse. Then there are the mid-term doldrums [1] where students and teachers alike are fatigued, overwhelmed, and struggle to maintain interest and energy. Then there is the final rush of work - exams and essays and long hours of studying - and just when you feel you have used up every last brain cell and you can't go another day without a proper meal and a good night's sleep, you're done! You exhale, not just one big sigh but lots of sighs. You sit in a daze, not quite able to imagine that nothing is due tomorrow or next week. You wake up that first morning after you have completed your last assignment and feel a lightness of spirit; the weight of impending deadlines no longer burdening your mind from morning till night and sometimes even invading your dreams. Simple activities like having a leisurely cup of tea or reading a novel or meandering down the street are infused with joyous wonder. You feel alive in a world where the colours seem brighter than they have in months and every moment is a gift. And then a week or two later when you get the news that - surprise - you passed the course with flying colours [2], a second wave of relief, thanksgiving, contentment, and joy washes over you.

For me, this is very much what the Christian season of Advent is like [3]. We celebrate and remember the coming of Jesus by entering into a time of waiting. There is the initial anticipation of something new. Perhaps we have an idea of what it will be like, but in reality we really don't know. In the middle of the ongoing waiting and endless preparation we can encounter the doldrums, times of listlessness, restlessness, and fatigue. We find ourselves asking why we signed up for this in the first place. But then we look around us and see that we are not alone; there are others in the same boat, so we band together and help each other to stay the course. Things get more intense, we give it a final push, and then what we have waited for, what we were afraid might never come at all, finally arrives. And we are overcome with joy, we struggle through denial and disbelief, we embrace it and reject it and embrace it again. We slowly become accustomed to a new reality: God is with us. And we breathe a little easier, we feel less burdened, we look at the world with renewed joy, and we pinch ourselves. Yes, this is real. God is here. He is come.

[1] Doldrums: a term adopted from historical maritime usage referring to a part of the ocean near the equator where a low pressure area results in calm winds. This could trap a sailing vessel there for days or even weeks.
[2] Flying colours: another naval expression used in centuries past to refer to victorious ships returning to harbour with flags flying from every masthead to let those on shore know they were successful in their quest.
[3] Advent: this word comes from the Latin verb which means "come to." It carries the sense of "important arrival," "coming," or "approach." It is also closely connected to the word "adventure." Yay, I like adventure!

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