Yesterday Renata and I went to do a bit of shopping in a local department store. It didn’t take long for us to appreciate that we had unwittingly joined the throngs heeding the tempting Siren call of Black Friday sales. And so we enter once again into that fabled season of ‘holiday shopping’, four frenzied weeks marked by sappy sentimentality and tinselled winter inauthenticity, a Valhalla of manufactured mark-downs.
Long before Christmas fell into the hands of commerce and claimed pride of place among our annual festivals, this Holiday Season was known as Advent and was marked not by a focus on shopping and indulgence but on preparation and reflection. On making sure that not only our pantry was stocked, but our hearts too were full; full of expectation to receive and participate in a new work of God in the world. Advent is forward looking; a season of anticipation, of expectant waiting.
Reflecting this ancient tradition, the prescribed scripture readings in most mainline churches for the four Sundays of Advent are apocalyptic in nature. An apocalypse (Greek: “uncovering”) is a disclosure of something hidden. The biblical texts, Jewish and Christian, are full of examples of this literature, written primarily to reveal an action of the divine and to give hope and assurance to people in the midst of trials. These scriptures are a reflection of the already-but-not-yet nature of the faith experience. In the Christian context, already we bear the name of Christ and are given the Holy Spirit. But not yet are we, or our world, made whole.
Apocalyptic literature asks us to do two things that seem contradictory: we are asked to take a realistic, sober look at what is happening in the world around us, and at the same time maintain our hope and expectation for the future. In trying times many of us find it easier to do the opposite, to look at the circumstances that surround us and move toward despair and cynicism. But no, to be people of genuine faith we must keep our heads out of the sand and remain hopeful that the fabled arch of history really is bent toward justice. We are called to respond to events, no matter how dire, not by retreating in fear or seeking self-preservation, but rather with hopeful acts of love and self-sacrifice. Our lives in trying times are to be a foretaste of a new era, a new order.
And until it comes, we wait.
Waiting is not fun, is it? We don’t like it. I heard recently that it is estimated we spend fully 1/7 of our waking hours waiting for one thing or another. It’s all terribly inefficient.
I remember waiting in a post office in Tangiers once, for well over an hour before I was served. The tourist in the queue next to mine didn’t last that long. He became more and more agitated, looking at his wristwatch, shuffling his feet, sighing loudly, and finally – at about 30 minutes – making a vociferous exit, complaining loudly about what a backward country he was visiting. The rest of us just looked on in amusement, thankful for the distraction as we continued waiting.
Why do we wait? Why, when we visit the airport do we find thousands upon thousands of people – eager as they are to arrive at their destination – yet “stuck” in departure lounges? Why? Because, even though there are airplanes aplenty at airports, these many individuals lack one or both of two essential qualities: they lack either the ability or the authority to bring an end to their waiting. Few are qualified aircraft pilots; they do not have the ability to change their situation, even if they wanted to. And the handful of waiting passengers who do have their pilot qualifications, do not have, in that moment, the authority necessary to wander onto the flight deck of a waiting jet and take it away.
Advent is an exercise in miniature of the waiting we all experience in life and faith. It is a recognition that sometimes for the necessary to be done, we have to wait on someone who – unlike us – has both the ability and the authority to change our situation. Very often, and certainly in an ultimate sense, that someone is God. We are waiting for God to appear in our lives again, to do what only God can do.
Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, says this about waiting:
“Waiting means ‘I need you”. If “I don’t need you” why should I wait at all. As long as we live human life in human community ‘waiting’ is inevitable. And if waiting means ‘I need you’ it can be a beautiful experience!
“I need you” – this is the most inspiring thing one can say to someone. To say “I need you” to God is faith. But, as we have seen, “I need you” implies “I wait for you”. Somehow we know from our life experience that “I need you” and “I wait for you” are inseparably related. Christian faith is to live on the basis of this combination. “I-need-you-I-wait-for-you”. Waiting is another name for faith.”
As we enter this Advent season, as we wait again for God to make a move in our lives – individually or corporately – let us turn our waiting into a declaration of faith.
“I cannot do this on my own. I need you, therefore I wait for you.”