A lot of waiting happens in hospitals. I get to be chaplain to people who are waiting for an organ transplant, waiting for a baby to arrive, waiting for their discharge orders to go home, waiting for test results, waiting for the medication to work, waiting for death, their own or a loved one’s. Often they don’t know how long they will have to wait, and that makes the waiting harder. And no matter what they’re waiting for, they know that things will be different when the waiting is over, in ways that they may not even be able to anticipate.
For Christians, this time of year is marked by Advent, a season of waiting. We wait to celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas, and we wait for the second coming of Christ. It’s a complicated season because of that simultaneous reaching back and reaching forward. As familiar as the Nativity story is, every year I wrestle with the reality of it, the implications of what it means. The lyrics of some Christmas carols give me chills every time.
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!”
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ’til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
“King of kings yet born of Mary, as of old on earth he stood, Lord of lords in human vesture, in the body and the blood.”
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
When I sit and wait with all those waiting people in the hospital, I realize what a very human experience it is to wait, to be bound by time and aware of it. And it changes my understanding of God when I remember that Jesus had to learn to wait, just like we all do. He waited to be fed and have his diaper changed. He waited for his parents to take him where he wanted to go. He waited to grow up. He waited for the right time to begin his public ministry. He waited for betrayal, for a trial, for crucifixion and death. Jesus knows what it is to wait, and so he can enter into our waiting with us. It is comforting for me to look back on his earthly life and remember that.
But the looking forward aspect of Advent, the waiting for Christ’s return, is much harder. There is nothing familiar about it. We don’t know when or how it will happen. Generations upon generations of believers have died waiting for it, looking for it. In church at this time of year, we read apocalyptic passages from the Bible, full of strange images and mystery sometimes. But what they all come down to is a complete overturning of the order of things as they are now. Swords beaten into ploughshares, war turning to peace, the lion resting with the lamb, the mighty stripped of their power and the lowly raised up, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. All that is wrong and unjust now will be made right, we are told, in the second coming of Christ. It sounds really, really good (unless you happen to be among the mighty and rich). There are Christmas carol lyrics on this end of things as well that quicken my pulse.
“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.”
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
“When the new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace, their King, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
When I see so much darkness in the world, part of me longs for these words to be fulfilled now. And yet I realize that, just like the people I wait with in the hospital, I don’t fully know what will happen when the waiting is over. The fear of the unknown is tied up with the longing for things to change. So I hold tightly to the things that are familiar. Every year (or at least every three years, for those of us who use the lectionary) we read the same scriptures, we sing the same songs. And every year, with some fear and uncertainty and longing and hope, we wait.
*The above image was created by Eliza Cramer Jaremko, and loved by many of us who are fans of both Advent and “Hamilton: An American Musical.”