Sunday marked the beginning of a new church year and the beginning of Advent, in which we wait once more for our Savior to come.
Each Tuesday during Advent, I’ll be posting an excerpt from the Advent chapter of my book. Here’s today’s reflection on waiting:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning
more than those who watch for the morning.
Each of the four Sundays of Advent has a watchword for the day as well as a Biblical figure with whom it is associated. The word for the first Sunday is wait, and it is associated with the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord himself…will give you a sign…: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel” (Is 7:14 JB). It this sign, this Son, for whom we wait in Advent.
Our Advent waiting occurs on two different levels. Certainly we wait for Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s birth in history past, but we also wait for the risen Christ to come again. In fact, the Gospel passage for the first Sunday of Advent is not the story of Jesus’ birth—the Annunciation or Mary’s response to the angel’s startling proclamation or Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Rather, it is part of Jesus’ speech about the signs of the end of the age, when we will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27). The Church’s choice of this passage speaks to me of the larger significance of Advent. Yes, it is a time of waiting and preparation leading up to Christmas—the celebration of Jesus’ birth in history—but ultimately, we are not waiting for Christmas; we are waiting for Christ’s return.
In English, the word “wait” tends to imply passivity, maybe even boredom. But this is not the implication that Jesus would have had in mind when he spoke of his disciples waiting for his return. In Hebrew, the word for “wait” is also the word for “hope.” (Thus translators can render “Wait for the Lord” as “Hope in the Lord” with equal accuracy.) This linguistic equation of “wait” with “hope” means that for Jesus, immersed as he was in the language of the Hebrew Bible, there is no conceptual differentiation between waiting and hoping. They are one and the same activity. This melding is especially apropos during Advent, when we wait in hopeful expectation for the return of Christ. Henri Nouwen calls this “active waiting.”
Active waiting, he says, “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. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.”
One of the traditions I find most helpful in cultivating this attitude of mindful attention during Advent is our family’s nightly lighting of the Advent wreath. Each week during Advent, we light an additional candle, proclaiming as we do so, “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.” This progressive lighting of the candles reminds us to wait with attentiveness through the darkness of December, because the Light who is coming into the world already shines in the darkness — if only we will watch and see.