I have to admit that I’m not very good at it. For when it comes to waiting, to paraphrase the Bard, I may be “as poor as Job, my Lord, but I’m not so patient.” In fact, my attitude is probably more like that of Abraham Lincoln who once noted that “things may come to those who wait—but only the things left by those who hustle.”
When it comes to this time of year, however, it’s probably a good thing that, try as I might, I can’t really rush the season of Advent. For almost like those uneven and irregular southern steps which led up to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, Advent seems to be designed to make us slow down and take stock of all that is around us. It’s the ultimate time of waiting, in fact, not just for the annual celebration of Christ’s birth, but for the time when He returns, as well, to usher in a new heaven and a new earth. All of which makes it a little odd that folks have reduced this season to the “hap, happiest time of the year.” For shouldn’t the notion that God is returning to lay claim to this rebellious planet—and to us– put at least a little shiver of fear in our bones, as well as a weary anticipation that soon and very soon all that is wrong with the world will once again be made right?
Oh, don’t get me wrong. When it comes to celebrating Christmas, I’m all in. I still can’t wait to see what’s in my stocking on Christmas morning, even if I’m the one who stuffed it myself. (Fortunately, it’s easy to forget what you’ve done after spending a full day and evening in worship services, ending well after midnight.) And when it comes to catchy carols, no one has ever been able to beat that dynamic duo of the eighteenth century, Isaac Watts and G.F. Handel, who gave us “Joy to the World,” though the sweetest sound of the season is still the squeal of children’s voices when they see what Santa has brought them.
But Advent itself is something altogether different, acting almost like a speed bump on the road to our rejoicing. For it points us to the importance of patience in a patently impatient world. Likewise, the season reminds us that when it comes to what really matters in this life—sublimely symbolized by the birth of a baby—we have no real choice but to wait, for in the end, it doesn’t depend on us at all.
From his prison cell in Nazi Germany, where waiting was a fact of life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this idea as well as anyone ever has, I suspect. Writing to his best friend Eberhard Bethge in the days leading up to Christmas 1943, Bonhoeffer observed that “life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent—one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence. For the door is shut and can only be opened from the outside.”
Advent takes us to the moment when God did precisely that through the coming of the Christ into this world. If it takes us a little longer than we might like to get there, thus, perhaps that’s the point. After all, what do you think the prophets of old imagined as they waited centuries for Immanuel to come?