Despite the hurried pace and instant gratification of modern life, we spend much of our time waiting. The day before writing this, I waited for boarding to begin, the plane to take off, the captain to turn off the seat belt sign, the plane to land, to deboard, for my bag to appear out of the bowels of the airport, for the shuttle to take me to my waiting car. Although we often say, “I can’t wait,” in fact much of the time that’s all we can do, wait.
Jews and Christians are world-class waiters. Jews await the Messiah. Christians await his coming again. As Pope Pius XII is reported to have said, Christians are “spiritual Semites,” because we share a waiting for the fulfillment of the promise. The Jews pray, “Next year in Jerusalem!” while Christians pray, “Your kingdom come,” and in the meantime we wait.
But waiting need not be passive. Waiting to take off, waiting to land, I read an entire book (Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, a young Marine’s memoir of a lot of anxious waiting for war to begin). Oftentimes, we not only can make productive use of the time, if we’re so inclined, but we must make attentive use of the time, if we’re not to lose any hope of receiving what we’re waiting for.
An athlete cannot just sit around and wait for the next game or match. She must undergo something like an agony of waiting, in the form of intense mental and physical preparation. Jesus famously underwent such an “agony” in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was waiting, but not just waiting.
In Advent, more than at any other time of the liturgical year, we are called on to perfect our waiting, our attentiveness, our receptivity, our longing. It’s as if we were standing on the watchtower, waiting for a glimpse of Elijah or John slipping over the horizon toward us. But even once he appears (perhaps only as a prophet-in-diapers!), it’s only to remind us of the more intense waiting for the more significant figure still to appear.
Will the day of the Lord never come? The kingdom never come in fullness? The suffering of the innocent never cease? Our longing never meet its match in the promise kept? Perhaps we are not waiting hard enough. Perhaps we have secretly quit hoping there’s anything to wait for. But to quit hoping, to quit waiting, would be to quit believing, quit “giving our heart to.” That would be a kind of spiritual suicide.
Advent, with its stories of messengers, harbingers, refining fires, good things near at hand, and prophets of yet greater prophets still to come, seems to say that life is all about expectancy. (But no one stays pregnant forever.) We can only hope, and wait, with full and yet empty, welcoming hearts. It’s as if we had a hole in our hearts the size of a Messiah. But only if we’ve been waiting, and waiting well. The gift is in the waiting, the gift awaits.
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