This year, more than usual, I have been looking forward to the season of Advent. I love Advent every year, mostly because of how much I love Christmas, and so I take great delight in the anticipation of the joy of the incarnation and the celebration of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Christmas is a season of love, of light, of giving and receiving; and therefore Advent is a season of promise, a season of hope.
This year, I find myself in almost desperate need of promise and hope, because it has been a grim year. We all can count the things we lost in 2020–some of them consequential and irreplaceable (like people), others trivial by comparison, but still significant (like trips, graduations, retirement parties, shared holidays and birthdays). There have been bright spots, of course, but I think for most of us, we are not going to look back on 2020 with fondness. [For me, I think it is going to be more like an involuntary shudder every time the year is named.]
So, as we stand here on the cusp of a new liturgical year, looking forward to a new calendar year with a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon as well as the vision of a kinder, more conciliatory and irenic political administration, there is much to hope for, and our waiting does not feel futile. Therefore, it is a good time to rest for a moment in this season of anticipation, to linger in this time of hope that will not be in vain.
In that spirit, I want to share some words from Henri Nouwen, from his meditation titled “Waiting for God,” in the Advent Devotional I am using this year, Watch for the Light. He begins by talking about how hard it is to wait; and he writes that “In our particular historical situation, waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful….Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are.” That is a powerful insight, I think. One of the things that has characterized 2020 for many, many of us is “fear;” even though we all have not been afraid of the same things, many of us have been afraid. And we don’t live our best lives in fear–fear makes us run, and fear makes us fight. Nouwen talks about that as well.
That is why the biblical witness of waiting is so important, because it is not just bare waiting–waiting without content or substance; instead, it is focused waiting for the good news: waiting, as Nouwen says, “with a sense of promise.” He writes, “People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow….So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.”
Further, the waiting of those in Scripture is not a passive waiting, it is an active waiting. Nouwen says, “They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing…Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.” The moment is now.
Yet, Nouwen also makes clear that waiting is not wishing. He observes that “Waiting is open-ended,” which is hard for us, because often our waiting is filled with our wishes–we want a job, we want a partner, we want better weather, we want happiness. This often leads to disappointment, when the future doesn’t turn out like we had hoped. But Nouwen makes clear that in the Bible, those who are waiting are not filled with wishes, but with hope. “Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes. Therefore, hope is always open-ended.” Advent reminds us to let go of our wishes and start hoping; Nouwen says that this allows something really new to happen, something beyond our own expectations–just like Mary, who says, “I am the handmaid of the Lord…let what you have said be done to me,” little imagining the miracle God is working in her and through her. She says yes to the promise, yes to the hope.
Nouwen says a bunch of other meaningful things in this little devotion, but I want to share just one more, and that is about the practical nature of waiting: How are we to wait? Here again, we can take our cue from Scripture, specifically from Luke 1:39-56, which invites us to wait together, like Mary and Elizabeth did. Nouwen writes, “I find the meeting of these two women very moving, because Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait.”
“They created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for.”
This, Nouwen says, “…is the model of the Christian community. It is a community of support, celebration and affirmation in which we can lift up what has already begun in us.” And in this Christian community, where the Word, prayer, celebration, and the Eucharist take place, we are reminded together that we are waiting for the Christ who has already come, who is already with us. And this is a rare treasure. It is this, Nouwen says, that allows us to “live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness…That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us….that God is a God of life even when we see death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together. We affirm it in one another.”
This Advent season, then, I wish you the joy of expectant waiting with those you love. The sure promise is that we do not wait in vain. Love has come down; the light is dawning.