At this time of year, we are reminded constantly of how many days till Christmas—and soon the waiting will be over. Waiting is a theme here: but I find myself wondering whether in fact we are waiting for anything.
We live in a culture of instant gratification. We don’t like waiting, whether it’s at the shops or in traffic. Someone once explained that a nanosecond is the length of time between when the light changes to green and the car behind starts tooting the horn.
Waiting is in fact an important theme in the Christians season of Advent. ‘Watch and Pray’ is the key idea for this first week of Advent, drawn from the words of Jesus in Mark 13. Keep awake, or keep alert … But for what? What are we waiting for?
‘Waiting’ here is not the same thing as doing nothing. It is not an entirely passive stance. Rather, it is meant to indicate a time of preparation. For many of us this time is accompanied by very practical things like preparing special foods for the Christmas festival. For example, many families in the past have enjoyed a ritual of stirring the Christmas pudding or making ginger bread houses. Some still do. Some prepare special table decorations, or other items of celebration. These things can be symbolic of a deeper sense of preparation. But again: for what? It’s not just preparation for a big meal, or meals, and the gathering that goes with it.
This time of preparation can also be a time of opening ourselves to something that is not yet here, not yet fully evident: This is the ancient Christian meaning of Advent. It’s a time of becoming open to what we might yet see: the ‘coming’ of our God—the coming of things, situations, outcomes that are promised or predicted in the stories we read and tell. Christians have repeated the stories about Jesus, to say that not just once upon a time, but in many and different ways still God appears and changes things.
As Jesus fed the hungry on one or two spectacular occasions, so too there can be and will be food for the hungry. As Jesus pushed back the barriers of social exclusion, creating a new dimension of community, welcome, inclusion so too barriers can be broken down now, still.
This is what I am waiting for, watching for: and actively reaching out for. That’s what ‘watch and pray’ means. It’s not passive. It’s an active stance of advocacy, hope, preparation, working, trying to see our dreams and visions come true.
And none of this is meant to be done alone. This active looking, preparing, reaching into the promised future is something for which we need each other. Alone we would despair. Give up. Together we find strength, sustaining each other’s watching and waiting. One wonderful old man I once knew as a friend used to help me by saying, ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down.’ It was a mutual and wry act of ‘watching and waiting’.
More than ever before the world needs us to hold together in hope, in watchful waiting—precisely because we are gripped by those who offer us quick fixes that are no fix at all. This is true in society, in politics, and in the church. It’s not a matter of some new policy, or program, though of course we could do with some better policies from our governments, to bring justice to the marginalised, welcome for the refugees and asylum seekers instead of our current cruelty and oppression. We need tax reform, but in exactly the opposite directions to those being proposed. We need to extend health care for those without the means to pay for ever-increasing costs. Sure.
But we should not be deluded into thinking that these things will somehow legislate the promised ‘reign of God’ into being.
No, along with these things we need to look, watch out, reach out even deeper and further, for the renewal of human life, through simple and humble relationship.
This can come before the social nirvana: it can come ‘on the way’, as human beings find each other in simple acts of love, kindness, shared support, compassion, forgiveness, understanding, encouragement, a cup of water, a helping hand, a smile, a shared tear. These priceless gifts evoke the coming of a new world order, a new reality.
Imagine that this is what we spent the next four weeks doing.
Preparing for… what? For a season of goodwill. ‘Peace on earth’, indeed.
Watch and pray.