The name for this season in the Church year, “Advent,” derives from the Latin, adventus, which means arrival: the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, whom we as Christians know as Jesus. Meanwhile, as we anticipate this arrival, we wait. If we were to open the Gospel accounts according to Matthew and Luke, we discover a great many people waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. Mary is waiting. Joseph is waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Symeon and Anna are waiting. Most everyone, it seems, is waiting. They’re waiting for an arrival. There are also shepherds who are waiting. There are some sages from the east – wisemen – who are waiting. The threatened government of Herod the Tetrarch is waiting, rather anxiously. The only persons who are not waiting are in Bethlehem, the keepers of an inn. And there’s no room in the inn. They’re all full up. It is nigh unto impossible to wait if you are full up, because waiting takes space; to be able to wait requires an emptiness. And that’s a problem. I think it’s problematic for many of us who live in North America.
There is a certain ingrained presumption that we should not have to wait. There are two compromising influences in our cultural zeitgeist when it comes to waiting. The MasterCard people tell us, “You can have it all, and you can have it now.” You don’t have to wait. You shouldn’t have to wait. (Waiting is a problem. Waiting is un-American.) That’s a compromising influence in our culture: the allure to continually live life on credit, borrowing from the future. A second confusing influence these days is more subtle, and that’s symbolized by the internet: virtual living. The technicians who create internet search engines know that the response to someone’s click must be within a couple of mini-seconds or else the person moves on, to surf somewhere else. I did a Google search on the word “waiting” and waited 0.13 seconds to get more than 222,000,000 web addresses on this topic of “waiting.” But the rest of life is not like that. Life is full of waiting.
And yet, for many people, there are few things more difficult than waiting. When someone says, “I’m waiting on ________,” this seldom comes a sense of consolation. Waiting often implies a certain agony or anguish. Waiting may seem vacuous or unproductive or useless. And yet, we have to wait all the time. We wait for the mail to arrive. We wait for a spouse or lover or friend to arrive, or to depart, or to change. We wait for someone to return our phone call. We wait for the traffic light to turn. We wait for someone to be healed or for someone to die. We wait for children or godchildren to grow up, or to shape up. We wait for what will happen between Israel and Palestine, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, with Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Haiti. We wait for what will happen with the world economy and with the job market. We wait to finally get our exam results, our credentials or degree, or our new job, or our vacation time. Sometimes we wonder, “Will it ever happen?” as we nervously dance from one foot to the other, hardly being able to hold still. We watch and we wait… and sometimes we worry. –So what are you waiting for, and how’s the wait?
I’ll return to the opening scenes in Matthew and Luke’s gospel where the common theme is waiting. There’s something for us to learn here. All these folks – Joseph, Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Symeon, Anna, the wise men, the shepherds, even Herod, and eventually John the Baptist (Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son) – are waiting because they know that something is coming. They’re waiting for that time, in the fullness of time, when a baby shall be born. The reason that we call it “waiting” (what all these people are doing) instead of fretting, or stalling or biding time… is because these people have a kind of promise. Each of them, in their own way, were able to wait because there was some promise which came to them: some assurance, some reminder, some sign, some inner knowing or longing which spanned the chasm – that empty space – between where they were and where they were being led in life. God was present to them, leading them in their longing while they waited. And so for us. Here are several clues that can help lighten the weight of our own waiting:
- Having to wait presumes that something is not yet complete. There is something more to be had or held or endured or enjoyed. Behind the sense of waiting – no matter how empty or anxious you may feel in the wait – is the sense that something more is coming. It may have to do with your personal life; it may have to do with those around you, with your community or country or with our world. Some of this waiting may cause you to tremble. If you find yourself anxious just now, in what you sense awaits you, there may actually be some good news rather disguised. Inside the experience of anxiety about the unknown is a seed of hope. Anxiety is an anticipation of the future… and so is hope. Saint Paul writes (in the Letter to the Romans): “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves… groan inwardly while we wait…. For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[i] If you find yourself waiting anxiously just now, pray for the conversion of your anxiety. Converted anxiety is hope. Anxiety is dreadful expectation; hope is expectant desire. And they are like cousins to each other. Pray for the conversion of your fretful anxiety into promising hope. That may well be a wonderful Christmas gift. If you are anxious just now, you are almost already hopeful. Something hopeful is happening in the wait. The Psalmist says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.”[ii] If you are anxious, you are almost hopeful. Pray for the conversion of your anxiety into hope.
- Waiting conforms us to the image of God who waits. We have been created in the image of God who awaits us. God waits with us, until we are ready. If we take our cues from the scriptures, we hear God’s calling us children, “children of God.” And we know that children are not developmentally ready to know everything at once. There is a reason why today is not tomorrow. If God chooses to give us as much as one more day to be alive, we shall need the provision of today to equip us for the prospect of tomorrow. God knows what we do not know. In the language of the psalmist, we are “like watchmen waiting for the morning.”[iii] The beams of enlightenment that we can bear, God will dawn on us when we are ready. And in the mean time we wait, we must wait, and until we are ready or readied. God waits with us. God also waits on us, like a waiter stooping low to serve us where we are and how we are. That sometimes means that God keeps us in the dark, “hidden under the shadow of God’s wings,”[iv] until we are ready for “the eyes of our heart to be enlightened.”[v]
- Thirdly, our having to wait invites us into the sacrament of the present moment. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. The outward signs of our very incomplete life are not accidents, nor impediments, but rather invitations to know God’s real presence in the present, in the here and now. We know God as the alpha and the omega – the beginning and the end of life. We also know God as we meet Jesus along the way, God with us now. The outward signs of our life – where we are, and how we are, and what we are in the moment, today – are the conduit of God’s interweaving grace in our lives, where God breaks through to us The present moment is sacramental, not to be missed. Life is to be lived along the way. There is no future of God in our lives unless there is a presence of God in our lives, now. At the moment when we may be tempted to flee from the present – which is to flee from the presence, the presence of God – these are the moments where God is meeting us, now. The present moment is sacramental.
This spiritual principle of waiting is nothing passive. It is not about bearing one blow, one shove in life after another, with our only response being a limp resignation. Waiting is not a limp submission. Rather, it’s an active acquiescence to God’s being at work in our life in ways beyond what we could ask or imagine, probably in the waiting.[vi] We read in the Gospel according to Matthew, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”[vii] This as a word of promise. It’s not a caution about how God might come to us in the end, but an assurance of how God does come to us all the time. The waiting is promising. “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” We can expect that God will come to us, again and again, even unexpectedly. Look for it; watch for it; wait for it. Simone Weil, the great French activist and spiritual writer of the 1940s, says “waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”[viii]
Consider how the season of Advent is an invitation to you, for all the “waiting” that inevitably goes on in your life. Embrace this word “waiting” into the vocabulary of your soul. It’s a rather counter-cultural word these days – waiting! – but it actually is an important foundation piece to our faith. What are you doing? You say, you say to yourself, “I’m waiting.” Isn’t that fascinating? To incorporate the promising word “waiting” into your experience of life, letting this graceful notion of “waiting” replace what otherwise might be worrying, or clamoring, or demanding, or resigning. You’re waiting, and with great expectation, for what is coming to be in your life, in the fullness of time. You are waiting on God, who is waiting on you, for what shall be birthed in your life in the fullness of time when you are ready or when you have been readied. Watch for it, wait for it, with thanksgiving and with great expectation: how the God of life is coming to you in good time, all the time.
[i] Romans 8:22-25.
[ii] Psalm 130.
[iii] Psalm 130:6.
[iv] Psalm 17:8.
[v] Ephesians 1:18.
[vi] See Ephesians 3:20-21.
[vii] Matthew 24:42-44.
[viii] Simone Weil (1909-1943), whom T.S. Eliot described as “a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.”
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