Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!
-”Wait for the Lord,” ELW #262, by Taize Community and Jacques Berthier
Advent is the first season of the church year, observed each year during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Since it’s a season of preparing and waiting, it makes sense that it’s right at the beginning. Get ready, get set, and wait.
I have always loved Advent. I love the candles and the hymns. I love getting ready, the slow but irresistible build-up to Christmas. I love the subtle blues that make space for feelings that are not quite “holly, jolly” during this complicated time of year.
And I thought I loved waiting. I thought I loved the anticipation. What’s under the tree? Who sent a card today? What kind of cookies will we make with Grandma? These were the kinds of eager, exciting waits that I’ve always associated with Advent. As I’ve reflected on the past year, I realized something about waiting.
It turns out that what I really loved wasn’t waiting. It was countdowns. Countdowns are reliable. 21 days until Christmas, 18 days until break, 27 days until New Year’s Eve, 12 days until that package arrives in the mail. Countdowns aren’t exactly easy waiting, especially when the thing at the end of the countdown is really great, but they are predictable. Six hours or six days or six months: these are measurable. Each moment brings the wait-er closer to the end, and she knows exactly when that end will be.
That’s how I was doing Advent. It wasn’t a wait. It was a countdown. It turns out that I do not actually like waiting. At least, I don’t like to wait unless I know when the end of the wait will come. Advent, though, isn’t just a countdown to Silent Night. It’s a reminder of the long wait that God’s people faced until the birth of Jesus, and the long wait that we face until his return. That’s why the Advent readings are so often full of words of expectation, mixed with hope and longing.
The prophets spoke of the birth of Jesus for centuries before he became that wailing infant. The wait they faced wasn’t a wait for themselves alone. It was the whole people of God, waiting together as a whole for a Messiah who was, they trusted, coming soon. Immanuel might come in a year or a decade or a century, but the countdown wasn’t the point. It is a bold and daring thing, to declare that God will come to restore a world that seems so broken. Even more so, when the expected day can’t be pointed to on the calendar.
There is no countdown for the arrival of Jesus. He himself said, “no one knows the day or the hour.” For nearly two thousand years, the church has been waiting for a promised return that hasn’t yet happened. It’s no surprise that we treat Advent more like a countdown to Christmas than a reminder of the long wait for Jesus, whether at his first coming on Christmas or his second coming when he comes “again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the creed professes.
Generations of Christians have clung to the promise of Christ’s return. We don’t talk about it much, though. I think there are two reasons, mostly. First is that pesky countdown. If we can’t see how long it’s going to take, we lose interest in such a drawn-out wait. Second is that for most American Christians, especially the financially stable, the cultural majority, the socially acceptable, that return of Jesus to bring peace and justice to the world might not seem so pressing. If your life, like mine, has mostly been mostly okay most of the time, well… the kingdom of God might not always feel very urgent. Why bother waiting attentively for change when things seem mostly okay as is?
For that answer, we have to go back to the prophets who spoke to the people of God about the promised Messiah. It wasn’t for themselves that they trusted and waited. It was for the whole community. The wealthy and the powerful alongside the poor and powerless and everybody in-between, all longing for the day when the community together would experience peace and justice.
Advent, if it is true waiting, isn’t a single person waiting by themselves for things to go right. It’s the community taking a stand to say that God is going to come with a kingdom worth waiting for, that God’s will for the world is better than what we have now, that God’s people aren’t willing to compromise a single person’s life for the convenience of the rest.
To be honest, I think I still prefer countdowns to waiting. Yet I know that what I prefer all by myself isn’t what God is asking me to do. God, through the prophets and the blue candles and the mellow hymns, is calling us all to wait attentively. God is calling us to the Advent longing for Jesus Christ to come again, changing our hearts and our lives. God is calling us to wait, to keep watch for Jesus and keep watch over each other.
O come, o come, Emmanuel, into our hearts and our world. When things are hard, assure us that you will come and make things right. When things are easy, turn our attention to our suffering neighbors, your dear children. In your holy name we pray, amen.