A Season of Waiting

O, You better watch out,
You better not cry, you better not pout,
 I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.

“Christmas Creep” has been happening around here since before Halloween. The great engine of American retail commerce has been operating at full speed for weeks, urging us to shop and purchase in order to make the great coming event the best Christmas ever. It has been a long time coming. In the meantime, there is something almost exquisitely painful, but at the same time, delicious about a child’s waiting for Christmas, counting the days, wishing, hoping until December 24 when waiting is so intense little ones have difficulty falling asleep.

It is a variation on the waiting we do all our lives.  We wait to be old enough to go to school, ride a bicycle, drive an automobile, graduate. We wait to land a job, find the right person. We wait for a promotion, a raise, success, security, retirement. Some of us have decades of experience waiting for the Chicago Cubs to rise up and play in and win a World Series.

Waiting is such a universal and deeply human experience. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which some scholars think is the quintessential work of modern literature and a metaphor for our time, two characters sit and wait for Godot. They talk and talk, incessantly and endlessly, back and forth, but Godot never comes.

We Americans are not very good at waiting. Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen, who lived and worked in North America until he died, was an astute observer of our culture. He concluded that most of us regard waiting as a waste of valuable time. Everything around us seems to urge us to get up and get going. Patience is a challenge; a flight delay, traffic gridlock, a meeting that drones on and on, a doctor’s appointment that leaves us sitting forlornly in the waiting room, all become minor emotional crises.

Someone noted that the very best advice is not the conventional, “don’t just sit there: do something,” which gets us in a lot of trouble, but the opposite, “don’t do something: just sit there for a while.”

Waiting is a major biblical theme. “I wait for The Lord all day long,” the Psalmist wrote. Hosea urges, “Wait continually for your God;” and Isaiah, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, walk and not faint.”

Biblical waiting happens in a situation that is bleak and not at all promising: Babylonian Exile. The people of God are isolated, alone, held in captivity far from home with only precious memories of their beautiful city and temple. We sing about those people in Advent: “O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.” Over and over down through the centuries the prophets advise them to wait and watch for God to act, for the promised Day of The Lord.

Advent has become, for many of us, the most deeply meaningful season of the church year, when we slow down, sit for a while in darkness while the liturgy turns to somber purple and profound and beautiful hymns in a minor key. It’s time for serious waiting for Christmas, the birth of the Child, but also for the future the Child promises that is not only coming but also present in the life of the world if we can watch and wait patiently for it. It is not passive waiting, sitting around whiling away the hours, days and years of our lives. Advent waiting is living into that future, leaning into it by praying, hoping and working for the coming reign of God, advocating, supporting, giving our resources, voting for the Kingdom. It is anything but the mindless, ultimately meaningless waiting of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which some have interpreted as waiting for our time to run out, our own death. Advent waiting is patient, but active, confident, hopeful, joyful.

For little ones, it is time for serious waiting and hoping. For us, in Advent, it is time to wait and watch for ways the promised Kingdom already comes, ways that are quiet and unexpected; the kindness of a friend, the healing of a gentle touch, an act of generosity, a gesture of grace, unexpected and quiet ways like the birth of a child in Bethlehem long ago.

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