Advent: for those who wait
Advent is a time of waiting. In the church calendar it includes the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day, and it’s a time of preparation for the ‘advent’, or arrival, of Jesus. Waiting is hard. I’m someone who is often late for appointments, and I think a large part of the reason is that I hate waiting around. Arriving early means an awkward limbo time of waiting, so I leave only just the right amount of time to get somewhere - and often end up late.
If I think about it, I’ve spent half my life waiting. My twenties were about waiting for a partner. That’s not everyone’s experience: some people are perfectly happy being single, and I really respect that. For me, being single was very painful. I got married at 32, ironically to a man I’d known since I was 24. Part of that time was waiting for me to sort my sh*t out so that I was ready for a healthy relationship. (Therapy is powerful).
My late twenties and early thirties were about waiting for my vocation. I gave up teaching because I believed God was calling me to work full time for the church, but it took me several painful years to figure out what that looked like. I remember literally sitting beneath my parents’ Christmas tree aged 29: single, unhappy in my work, unable to see where my life was going, and crying, looking at the ruins of my life. After several wilderness years, I ended up training to become a Baptist minister, but still struggled to find the place where I fit. (I’m now having the time of my life working for the Methodist Church.)
My mid-thirties to early 40s were about waiting to become a parent. Waiting to conceive. Waiting to be referred for fertility treatment. Waiting to see whether each cycle would work. Waiting that ultimately stretched into eternity, because my prayers were never answered. Rosemary Morgan writes about the waiting that comes with infertility, but argues that after a while, waiting ceases to be the right word:
When we first began our quest to become parents, my husband and I thought that was what we were doing – waiting for a child. As the quest became longer and the disappointments piled up on top of one another, waiting began to look like the wrong image. We are not waiting any longer. Now we are fighting, mourning, seeking, longing. Waiting for a baby is what we used to do (Living with Infertility: A Christian Perspective, p. 14).
Most people won’t experience infertility, but all people have things for which they wait. Hopes which are deferred, apparently indefinitely. The hope of a relationship repaired. The hope of a physical or mental illness healed. The hope that grief might feel less overwhelming. All people are, at times, fighting, mourning, seeking, longing. If that’s you, then here’s the good news: the season of Advent is for you. While you look around, you may see everywhere the anticipation of joy: ads for perfect family Christmases, tables groaning with food, expensive presents beautifully wrapped under the tree. And you may be wondering how your life can possibly match up to that. Because your family relationships are deeply troubled, your food bills have gone through the roof and you’re wondering how you’ll provide the essentials, let alone all the other stuff.
But that advertiser’s dream is emphatically NOT what biblical Advent is about. Biblical advent is about all people - indeed, all of creation - groaning in pain, awaiting salvation. Each year during Advent we rehearse that waiting - waiting for the birth of Jesus, but also waiting for the time when Jesus will come again and heal all of creation.
But it’s not just a passive waiting around to be rescued. To use Rosemary Morgan’s words, it’s fighting, mourning, seeking, longing. It’s an active waiting. Mourning what has been lost. Longing for what might be. Seeking hope. Fighting for that hope. Advent reminds us of those things for which we hope, but it can also remind us that we can live into that hope now, pushing through the pain, stretching out our hands, reaching for the promise of a better future. Small acts of hope. Maybe it's buying second hand to reduce the environmental impact of our consumption; campaigning for safe and legal routes for asylum seekers; having a conversation with someone who's begging. My seven-year-old was horrified to see someone begging outside Aldi recently, and trying to explain to a child why everyone was ignoring him felt like trying to excuse the inexcusable. We don't have to accept the world the way it is. We can change it. Boy, is it hard work.
Almost the very last words of the Bible, Revelation 22.20, declare this: 'He who gives his testimony to all this [i.e. Jesus] says, “Yes indeed! I am coming soon!” So be it. Come, Lord Jesus!' I love this verse, because painful waiting and bright hope come together. They're held in tension. I'll be here soon! Lord, please hurry!