Ever since I can remember, my family has embraced the same Christmas traditions: eating hors d’oeuvres instead of a big, formal meal on Christmas Eve, going to church, and before opening presents, reading the Christmas story from Luke chapter two. I assume my parents began this Christmas story tradition with the desire to impress upon me and upon my sister that Christmas is really about the birth of Jesus and not about the presents. And I say kudos to them! I think I did learn that as evidenced by the fact that I am now a pastor. But something else I learned about reading the Christmas story before opening presents every Christmas Eve was exactly how long that story is—20 verses! 20 verses in the Bible takes a while to read. There’s Cesar Augustus, then Mary giving birth to her firstborn son and lying him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn, then the shepherds and the angel and the glory of the Lord shining around them, and then finally Mary treasuring all these things in her heart. To a nine year old waiting to open her presents, 20 verses is a long wait. Starting at age 9 up to this very year, I have been the designated reader of the story. In reading this story from a young age each year, I came to be acquainted with the Bible. The Christmas story was the one story I could find in the Bible, the one story where I knew how to pronounce all the words, the one story that led me to find other stories. While I rushed each year to get from Cesar Augustus to Mary and Jesus to the shepherds and back to Mary, in between those moments of rushing, I learned the foundational story of the incarnation—God coming in the flesh—and was led into further reading of the Bible, milestones in my early faith. Thank goodness we didn’t rush to open presents!
Today is the first day of the church season called Advent, always the four Sundays prior to Christmas. Advent is a season of waiting, a season of waiting for Jesus’ birth, a season of waiting for God to act. We may be confused by this season of waiting because shouldn’t we just skip to Christmas? What is the value of waiting? Why does the church—through the mechanism of the church calendar—call us to wait? I ask these questions because, as a culture, we are not keen on waiting and, like my 9-year-old self, are fond of rushing.
We have likely all been there…While driving or riding in a car, the person in the next lane—or let’s be honest—maybe it was us. But for the purposes of this illustration, we’ll just say it was someone else. The person in the car in the next lane drives with incredible speed, covering the distance between here and there with an astonishing flash of light and sound of squealing tires. You watch them go…and then you find yourself next to them stopped at the next stoplight. You shake your head and laugh. Speeding up to get quickly through the stoplights of Central Avenue, 7th Street, or 7th Avenue—instead of patiently driving—doesn’t really pay off in the end.
Or perhaps you know the feeling of learning to garden. When I planted my first garden, I was astonished to read on the outside of the seed packet the number of days I would have to wait for my vegetables to come to fruition. How long does it usually take? 60 to 90 days! That’s 2 to 3 months! All right now, I had energy and enthusiasm to put in a garden, but the wait time on the production of the actual vegetables can be a downer.
We will have to wait. There are certain things we can’t speed up: how fast seeds grow or don’t grow into vegetables, how long it takes to get from here to Central and Bell Road in a car. We will wait in lines and on the outside of closed doors. We will wait for test results and college acceptance letters, for returned phone calls and returned text messages and returned emails. We will wait for people we love to come home and maybe wait for things we don’t want to happen to happen. We will wait anxiously, angrily, with dread, or we will wait patiently, hopefully, joyfully. Regardless of how we wait, we will wait because some things just take time.
Now, in our culture, this is a message we don’t want to hear, a message, in fact, that we often think we should not hear. We have come to a place where we think that waiting for anything is the result of someone not doing their job well, not returning phone calls or taking too many breaks, the result of some travesty on the part of engineers who don’t know how to time stoplights, the result of a failed system. Why must we wait for anything? As a culture, we are uncomfortable with silence, with space, with being here and now. As a culture, we are ever rushing towards the next thing, but Advent is a season that invites us to be here, now, fully present in this moment as it is. Christ is coming! Coming in the manger and coming back in glory, but here, now, in this moment, there is nothing we can do to rush Christ’s coming. We can simply sit in this liminal space, the space between what was and what will be.
For me, there is relief in Advent. As a highly motivated, driven person, I perpetually have a list of professional goals on my mind, goals I strive to complete in a myriad of ways, ever looking for opportunities to take steps forward. At home, I literally have a list of goals posted on my refrigerator, things at which I am working in my personal life. In my driven state, Advent is a place of rest, four weeks of life where I realize that, while goals are good and helpful, there are some things I cannot rush. Being fully present to the person I pass on the street or my neighbor or the person who appears to need help, being fully present to each conversation, to each activity, to the values implicit in the choices I am making is maybe the very best thing I can do now—or ever.
We are perhaps ever living in Advent, ever waiting for what is to come. In the midst of our wait which may feel wasted, we may discover some value. We may discover that not rushing may be purposeful. We may discover that waiting itself is part of the plan, part of the goal. In the brilliant book The Red Tent by Anita Diamant which is a fictional account of the family of Jacob from the book of Genesis, one of the characters reflects on the time of pregnancy—though the same could be said for the time it takes to adopt. The nine months of pregnancy—with all its difficulties and inconveniences—are regarded as the time in which mothers learn how to be mothers. The nine months of waiting are not wasted but instead purposeful: a time of learning how to care for a being beyond oneself.
At the end of this season of Advent, we will celebrate the coming of Christ in the manger. Regardless of how we wait, Christ will come. Nothing we can do will stop the coming of this baby savior. But in the meantime, how will we wait? What will we learn in this season? Perhaps, with the prophet Isaiah, we will learn that we no longer need spears and swords. Perhaps we will learn to see Christ coming again and again in our neighbor. Perhaps we will sit in this moment, here and now, fully present to whatever God has to reveal to us today. Regardless, now, we wait…