A young couple learns that they are pregnant. The first days upon making this discovery are filled with alternating sensations of excitement, fear, and utter disbelief. As those first days pass and the weeks and months drag on, the couple settles into a more stable oscillation of excitement, fear, and disbelief. But whatever else their nine months entails, it most assuredly does not include passivity or lack of attention. Theirs is an active and faithful waiting. They do the things that give life. She reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting. He puts together the crib. They both gaze with wide-eyed amazement at the changes in her abdomen as God’s blessing grows within her, until they can feel and even see the child move, rolling and pitching like a ship at sea. Their waiting is marked by prenatal visits to the doctor, sonograms and blood tests. There are anxious moments. There are wondrous moments. And there is an attentive and faithful waiting. The birth will come, and it will be glorious. The couple can prepare. They can tend to this blessing they have been given. But the moment that this child will arrive no one can say. And so, they wait.
A 102-year-old woman has outlived her friends. She enjoys a clear mind, but her body will not respond to her will the way it once did. She is not depressed, at least not often, but she does wonder why she remains when so many have gone. She does not fear death, knowing in faith that death is a transition rather than an end. And so, she waits. But hers, too, is an active and faithful waiting. She does the things that give life. She writes letters, and when she is unable to hold a pen, she asks the woman who cooks her meals to write the words for her. She talks to her family, passing on the stories that have informed her life and formed her wisdom. She mends the tears that unavoidably have occurred in some relationships over so long a life. She talks to God regularly and listens for God even more. There are anxious moments. There are wondrous moments. And there is attentive and faithful waiting. The woman’s reunion with loved ones gone before and with God will come, and it will be glorious. The woman can prepare. She can tend to the blessings she has been given. But the moment that she will enter larger life no one can say. And so, she waits.
The Creator reaches down from the heights of the cosmos and dips a hand into the chaos and void. God moves back the darkness and ushers in the light. God breathes over the waters and brings forth life. God bestows upon the creation every blessing, most especially the gift of free will, to determine for itself the kind of world it will be. God looks on with pain and sorrow as the creation makes choices that lead to destruction and death. People kill one another. Nations wage war. Those charged to be stewards of creation use the green earth in ways that cannot be sustained. Knit into the Creator’s tapestry of creation is a Savior, who will come and offer redemption to those who have fallen so very far, but the time has not yet come. And so, God waits. It is an active and faithful waiting. God does the things that give life, coming to those in need, crying with those who sorrow. God labors to melt stony hearts. There are anxious moments. There are wondrous moments. And there is attentive and faithful waiting. The time will come for the Savior’s birth. The time will come for his Second Coming, when the creation will be mended and made whole, and it will be glorious. But the time is not yet. And so, God waits.
No one likes to wait. When given a choice, we are all people of instant gratification. But blessedly, in those instances in which we have no choice we at times experience waiting as a profound gift. Just as the pregnant couple, just as the 102-year-old woman, can experience the time of waiting—when the child is formed in the womb, when wisdom is passed on to younger generations—as a gift.
Today’s Gospel passage in Matthew is one that has been hijacked by those who espouse the very shaky Rapture theology. But this passage is not about the Rapture (which, by the way, is itself not an authentically scriptural concept). This passage is about faithful waiting. It is about doing the things that give life, so that when the Creator’s time has reached fruition, and Jesus our redeemer and friend comes to make all things new, we will recognize him. It is about, in our anxious moments and our wondrous moments, waiting.
This has everything to do with Advent, which begins today. Advent is not primarily that period in which to do our Christmas shopping. It is a holy season of anticipation and waiting. I have asked myself why, for some, the Christmas season is such an unhappy time, why it rings so hollow for so many. I have come to the conclusion that, for some, it is because Christmas in our culture strikes some as so very false. As if in an eggnog-laden daze, we commercialize and consume our way through late November and December, dragging Christmas ever towards us with flash and tinsel. There is no faithful waiting. Instead, there is a breakneck attempt to usher in the holiday earlier and earlier. And so, for most of us the significance of the Nativity is lost altogether. For others—those for whom the holiday is so difficult—the good cheer of the holiday season has rung so false that when Christmas Day arrives it is experienced like that drugstore candy that looks so tantalizing as we grab for it but once in our mouths tastes like cardboard.
Advent is a holy season of anticipation and waiting, both for the Nativity and for the Second Coming. What would it look like to observe Advent? What would it look like to hope for the Nativity rather than grabbing it and dragging it backward? What would it look like to hope for Christ’s return, not knowing the moment it might occur?
How do we faithfully wait? Matthew encourages us to be about the things that give life. He mentions Noah, who labors to build a vessel of life while the world around him continues in its normal, destructive ways. What, in our lives, might it be to do the same?
Can you imagine observing Advent by taking half of the money we’d normally spend on Amazon this month and instead purchasing items from our Alternative Giving Market or feeding those who are hungry through a donation to our Food Pantry or St. Francis House? Can you imagine turning off the television in the evening and instead reading to your family from the second chapter of Luke? Can you imagine beginning to live today as if Christ might come tomorrow and look you—or me—straight in the eye and ask, “Did you wait faithfully? Did you make peace? Did you love?”
Not all candy tastes like cardboard. On special nights at my grandmother Boo’s house, she would heat up the oven and mix together a bowl of mushy white meringue. The entire time she would talk to us about how important it is to wait for the best, most blessed things in life. She would add chocolate chips to the concoction and then spoon out little blobs onto a cookie sheet. Once the oven was hot, she’d turn it off, place the cookie sheet inside, and leave the oven door cracked.
“Now we must wait,” she’d say. And we would do so actively, never knowing when the treat would be ready. She would tell us stories of faith, teach us in ways of virtue, and tuck us safely into our beds. Only the next morning would my grandmother open the oven and let us see what was inside. Where those mushy blobs had been were now light and airy morsels of such delicate sweetness that they melted in our mouths. Had we bought them at the store, or had she prepared them with us watching television, zombie-like, in the other room, or had she even told us in advance when they’d be ready, the experience would not have been the same. So it is for us this Advent. Christmas will come, and it will be glorious. Christ’s return will surely come, but we know not when. We risk missing the significance and the sweetness altogether if we fail to prepare for his coming. There will be anxious moments, and there will be wondrous moments, as we live in faith. As we wait.