How Advent Teaches Us the Value of Waiting
The concept of waiting is not a popular one in American culture. In the 1970s, the microwave arguably became the archetype of how much we despise it. We find waiting so distasteful, in fact, that entire industries are now devoted to avoiding it. Amazon has made “two-day shipping” into an expectation rather than a novelty. Online TV and music streaming services have standardized instant gratification.
As for Christmas, our culture has decided that the wait is over even before Thanksgiving. Retail store items, dentist office soundtracks, and yard decorations tell us that Christmas occurs in early to mid-November. And with every passing year, it seems as though it begins a little sooner.
We don’t like waiting because it’s hard. As Tom Petty used to sing, “The waiting is the hardest part.” But should hard things be avoided? The Christian life tells us that waiting is in fact integral to the created order. As we find ourselves in the final week of the traditional Christian Advent season, a time of waiting for the coming of the Savior, let’s reflect on the value of waiting.
‘A Period of Gestation’
Perhaps the most fundamental example of how waiting is woven into the human experience is pregnancy. The fact that a human being must slowly grow for nine months in his mother’s womb before being born is a beautiful mystery, one that we know God instituted for a specific purpose.
In her spiritual classic “The Reed of God,” author Caryll Houselander provides an extended meditation on the deeper meaning of Advent, with a particular focus on how the season images pregnancy, the time when Mary nurtured the child Jesus in her womb. “There must be a period of gestation before anything can flower,” she writes. She goes on to make a striking observation about the meaning behind the sorrow and depression that many feel around Christmas time, often due to the stresses of purchasing gifts and making preparations — but also due to familial conflicts and reminders of broken relationships.
“If only those who suffer would be patient with their early humiliations and realize that Advent is not only the time of growth but also of darkness and hiding and waiting, they would trust, and trust rightly, that Christ is growing in their sorrow, and in due season all the fret and strain and tension of it will give place to a splendor of peace.”
Although written in 1944, Houselander recognized even then that Western culture was moving in a direction of “impatience.” She goes on:
“We live in an age of impatience, an age which in everything, from learning the ABC[s] to industry, tries to cut out and do away with the natural season of growth. That is why so much in our life is abortive.
“We ought to let everything grow in us, as Christ grew in Mary. And we ought to realize that in everything that does grow quietly in us, Christ grows. We should let thoughts and words and songs grow slowly and unfold in darkness in us.”
It is worth pondering that this “darkness” of waiting encapsulates much of the earthly existence of Christ. He first spent nine months quietly growing in Mary’s womb, waiting to be born. He then spent the first 30 years of His earthly life largely hidden from public view, a time that is shrouded in mystery. Besides the account of the finding in the temple, all that Luke tells us of these years is that “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). Once again at the end of His earthly life, Christ entered into the darkness of the tomb for three days before rising.
In a certain sense, the entire story of God’s people told in the Old Testament can be summed up as a time of waiting. After the fall, the Israelites spent thousands of years waiting to be freed from captivity, waiting to reach the promised land, and ultimately waiting for the Messiah to return.
When we honestly look at the course of our own lives, we find that it is largely defined by waiting. As children, we often long to grow older, but we must wait. As young adults, we often long for spouses, children, and fulfilling careers, but we must wait. As workers, spouses, and parents, we often long for the weekend, more free time, and less responsibilities, but we must wait. As we grow old, we may long for Heaven and unity with our Savior, but we must wait.
In all of this comes an Advent lesson. As we wait, we are called to prepare.
A Time for Preparation
The word “Advent” is taken from the Latin word “adventus,” meaning “coming.” Clearly then, if Christ is indeed coming at Christmas, we must prepare for it.
There is no doubt that for many of us, a substantial part of this preparation will entail simply taking part in the time-honored traditions that we all know and love as Christmas draws near: buying presents for our loved ones, writing Christmas cards, preparing to host family gatherings and meals, etc. These are indeed all beautiful ways that we can give of ourselves and be a part of fostering the “Christmas spirit.”
But as Christians, we must always seek to “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) and not merely be content to do the things we are familiar with. Once again, Houselander provides thoughtful insight into how we are called to prepare during Advent:
“It is a time of darkness, of faith. We shall not see Christ’s radiance in our lives yet; it is still hidden in our darkness; nevertheless, we must believe that He is growing in our lives; we must believe it so firmly that we cannot help relating everything, literally everything, to this almost incredible reality.
“We shall do [good works] just for one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back into the world.
“This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent, we must carry Him in our hearts wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them.”
We can again turn to the example of Mary here. As she herself waited while Christ formed in her womb, she knew from the angel Gabriel’s message that her cousin Elizabeth was also expecting a child in her old age. Knowing that it would likely be a difficult pregnancy and that she would need help, Mary “arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39-40). We are later told that Mary “remained with her about three months” before returning to her home (v. 56).
Here we see a marvelous example of selfless kindness — the newly expectant mother of God embarking on an incredibly arduous journey. Scholars note that Mary’s trip from Nazareth would have entailed a roughly 100 mile trek mostly uphill in order to reach Ein Karem and minister to her elderly cousin who was facing an unexpected pregnancy.
Authentic preparation for the birth of Our Lord entails a “making room” for the Christ-child to enter ever more deeply into the stables of our hearts, just as Mary did. When we give of ourselves, even just a little bit, beyond what is comfortable — our time, our sacrifices, our energy, our prayers — we are left with the posture of open hands. Hands that aren’t grasping at instant gratification, or more of what we already have, but hands that are open to receive Christ all the more fully in our lives and image Him to others.
In this way, we can truly celebrate a Christmas where Christ lives on earth in and through us — a Christmas where we leap for joy, like John the Baptist did inside Elizabeth’s womb, in our encounter with Him (Luke 1:41). As Houselander observes, “…this is Christ’s favorite way of being recognized, that He prefers to be known, not by His own human features, but by the quickening of His own life in the heart, which is the response to His coming.”
In sum, let us harness the opportunity of this Advent season to cultivate a patient openness as we wait for the Savior. “Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence,” Houselander writes. “It is the season of humility, silence, and growth.” For it is only when we slow down and wait in humble prayer and contemplation — thus allowing Christ to grow within us — that we can rightly prepare our hearts and our hands for bearing the Child into the world.
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.